Although heart disease risk is about 50 percent genetics, the other 50 percent depends on how you live.

Cardiovascular disease remains the No. 1 killer of both men and women in the United States. According to 2018 American Heart Association statistics, cardiovascular disease — which includes coronary heart disease, stroke, and heart failure — is the underlying cause in one out of every three deaths. 

Although heart disease risk is about 50 percent genetics, the other 50 percent depends on how you live. That means even with a high genetic risk, you can keep you overall risk down — or you can make it extremely high with poor lifestyle choices.

What can you do to protect your heart? Here are the actions that matter most.

1. Don’t smoke, and protect yourself from secondhand smoke. Smoking is the leading risk factor for heart disease. It increases your risk for blot clots and plaque formation, plus it decreases blood flow, raising your chances of heart disease and stroke. Secondhand smoke also significantly increases your risk of heart attack. The good news? If you stop smoking now, your risk of coronary heart disease will be halved by this time next year and eventually return to normal. 

2. Add more plants to your diet. Plant-based diets have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease. Plants (fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, nuts, seeds) are full of fiber, which helps move cholesterol out of the body. Plus they are an important source of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and probiotics, all of which help decrease inflammation. Add more plants to your daily diet, starting with breakfast.

3. Limit animal fats. Animal fats are a primary source of saturated fat, a major contributor to increased blood cholesterol levels. High blood cholesterol leads to atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. Limit portions of meat (especially beef and pork) and dairy products. Choose lean cuts and reduced-fat dairy, and cook with plant-based fats.

4. Exercise often. Get your heart pumping! The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes of exercise a week, but 30 to 60 minutes a day is even better. Incorporate more movement into your daily routine; sit less, and walk more. 

5. Cut added sugar. Diets high in sugar have been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, weight gain and diabetes. The average American eats around 22 teaspoons of added sugar every day. The experts recommend less than six teaspoons for women and less than nine for men. Added sugar is any sugar that is not naturally found in the food. Honey in your tea counts, but not the sugar naturally in your banana. Starting in 2020, food labels will have to disclose how much added sugar is in the product.

6. De-stress. Stress has a similar effect on heart disease risk as smoking and diabetes. Stress puts the body in a constant state of inflammation, raising your blood pressure and compromising your immune system. Meditation, yoga and breathing exercises are effective ways to lower stress levels. Having a good social network and avoiding toxic relationships are also good for your heart. 

7. Watch your weight. The more abdominal fat you have, the higher your risk for heart disease. Obesity also increases your risk of high blood pressure, stroke and diabetes.

8. Be sodium-wise. Most of the sodium in our diet comes from processed/packaged foods, fast food and restaurant meals. Too much sodium increases your risk for high blood pressure and causes damage to your arteries, which contributes to plaque buildup. 

As much as possible, purchase raw food to cook at home. Read labels, and choose foods that have no more than 300 milligrams of sodium per serving.

9. Get your rest. Inadequate or poor sleep increases your risk of heart disease and other chronic health problems. If you tend to wake up tired, tell your doctor. You might have sleep apnea, a condition that causes pauses in breathing, which in turn cause oxygen levels to dip and signals stress hormones that raise blood pressure and increase inflammation.

10. Know your numbers. Get regular checkups. Have labs drawn and your blood pressure checked. High blood pressure is the No. 1 risk factor for stroke. Monitor your cholesterol and glucose levels, and make diet and lifestyle changes to get these numbers where they should be. You can receive free and low-cost screenings that check for heart disease at Lake Regional’s Cardiovascular Screening, scheduled 7:30 to 10 a.m., Saturday, Feb. 16, in the hospital’s third floor conference rooms. Registration is encouraged at

Additionally, keep alcohol intake to no more than one drink per day for women or two for men. 

Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the Cardiopulmonary Rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach.