February is full of hearts, and not just the red and pink fuzzy kind you give your Valentine.
The month of love is also dedicated to heart health — American Heart Month.
One of the leading causes of heart disease and stroke is uncontrolled high blood pressure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC and Million Hearts — a national initiative spearheaded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — are teaming up in a national effort to prevent 1 million heart attacks and strokes in the U.S. by 2017 by encouraging citizens to know and control their blood pressure.
People who are at risk the most for heart disease include those with high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes and those who use tobacco products, said Dr. Scott Rogge, Southwestern Vermont Medical Center's medical director of cardiology.
"Those are the major risk factors that we focus on. Genetics can also play a big role," Rogge said. "We tell patients to aim for an even lower blood pressure than what studies say to have because the standards have changed."
For women, signs of a stroke or heart attack are much different than from what men experience, according to Rogge. Women will feel nauseous, start sweating and get shortness of breath, a headache or indigestion.
"Women don't have the classic symptoms. They're trickier to diagnose. We tell patients to pay attention to their bodies," he said. "If something isn't right, get it checked out."
Heart health isn't just important to adults. With obesity rates in children increasing, so are the cases of heart disease later in life. Overweight children can reverse the impact of the disease with a change in diet and lifestyle, according to the World Heart Federation.
"Kids younger and younger are having issues. It's never too early to start monitoring your blood pressure," Rogge said.
Developing healthier daily habits can be the first step in lowering your blood pressure. Gina Armstrong, director of the city of Pittsfield health department, and Peter Stanton, registered dietician at the Nutrition Center in Pittsfield, Mass., both advise starting with small steps focusing on eating better, managing stress more effectively and quitting smoking.
The ingredients to a heart healthy diet include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, food high in omega-3 fatty acids, and other high-fiber foods, according to Stanton.
"Preparing food ahead of time is a great way to make sure you have access to nutritious food on the go. The outer perimeter of the supermarket contains fresh produce, meat, seafood, dairy and other foods that are not highly processed," Stanton said. "Concentrate most of your shopping time in these areas of the store to help you avoid the hard-to-resist items filled with high amounts of high-fructose corn syrup, sugar and salt, while giving you little nutritional value."
Stanton added beans and whole grains, which aren't always found on the outskirts of the grocery store, maintain healthy digestion and help prevent cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and other chronic diseases.
"Beans are an inexpensive rich source of protein and fiber," Stanton said. "Soups, stews, dips and salads can be based on beans."
Fast food, junk food and other meals high in calories are usually the ones to blame for problems with the heart; however, Lisa Nelson, medical director of the Nutrition Center, thinks that sugar is next in line to be at fault. Sugar can certainly add to fat cells, but a JAMA Internal Medicine study done in 2014 claims that those who receive 17 to 21 percent of calories from added sugar have a 38 percent higher risk from dying from cardiovascular disease.
"The number one thing is switching from any bottled drink to water. It's my number one recommendation because a lot of people get their sugar from bottle tea, energy drink or a light-and-sweet coffee from Dunkin Donuts," Nelson said. "Number two is similar; it's avoiding processed foods. Don't buy a bar; buy almonds. If you do buy processed foods, always look to see how much sugar is in it. You shouldn't buy anything with more than 15 grams of sugar in it."
In addition to what is the best bet for your taste buds and heart, put up a fight to lose the gut and manage stress with regular exercise. It burns calories and reduces blood pressure and bad cholesterol, Armstrong said.
"Some people find yoga and meditation helpful," Armstrong said. "Sometimes, it helps to take your problems to a professional counselor. You may have a program at work or support at your church. You do not have to do it alone. Find the support and habits that are best for you."
For more information on heart disease and heart healthy month, visit www.heart.org.