Perhaps because we are anxious to reject the gloomy throes of winter, February presents an amazing array of potential celebrations. On one end, we have National Dark Chocolate Day and Eat Ice Cream for Breakfast Day. At the other end, we have National Chili Day, National Protein Day and Chocolate Souffle Day. In the middle comes a February highlight, Valentine’s Day, a celebration of love and affairs of the heart.

I am not so sure about some of these newer holidays; however, all of February has been celebrated as National Heart Month since 1963 when President Lyndon Johnson issued a proclamation calling attention to a major national health problem — heart disease.

Study of causes and cures for heart disease has kept the attention of medical researchers for more than 50 years, and heart disease rates have declined significantly. But, just as in 1963, heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, resulting in over 600,000 deaths annually. In Alaska it is responsible for one-third of all deaths.

The term “heart disease” refers to a number of conditions of the heart and blood vessels with coronary artery disease the most common of these and responsible for most heart attacks. In this type of heart disease, the arteries supplying blood to the heart become damaged and narrowed with fatty deposits that doctors call plaque. If the arteries are narrow and blood flow to the heart is poor, an individual may experience pain or angina. When thickened areas of plaque rupture, a clot may form, blocking the artery and resulting in a heart attack (or stroke if the clot is in the brain). 

There are several things that lead to damaged, plaque-filled arteries — smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes, poor diet and lack of physical activity. The more risk factors you have, the greater your chances for developing heart disease. Here are a few things you can do to help prevent heart disease.

Quit smoking! Smoking raises blood pressure, increases blood clotting, raises bad cholesterol levels and triglycerides and lowers good cholesterol. Heart Month is a good time to commit to quit. Alaska provides free help for quitting at its hotline: 1800 QUIT NOW / 1-800-784-8669. 

Know your numbers. The extra force created by high blood pressure damages the lining of the artery and contributes to formation of those fatty plaques. High blood pressure can also trigger the breaking of plaque and the formation of a clot. Guidelines have changed in the past couple of years so it worth checking to make sure that your blood pressure is in the safe zone. The current recommendation for all ages is no higher than 120/80 (previous guidelines had set the level at 140/90 for those under 65 years and 150/80 for those over 65). Regular exercise, weight loss, controlling blood sugar and eating healthy can help to lower blood pressure. If these approaches don’t work, medications may be advised.

Eat healthy. What kind of food should we be eating to keep the ticker working well? The Mediterranean Diet, of course, with lots of vegetables, legumes, fruits and nuts, less processed and fatty meats and cheese and including healthy fats such as extra virgin olive oil, canola oil or safflower oil. Include fish at least several times per week. One new recommendation from the Heart Association is to limit sugar and sugary foods to no more than 9 teaspoons or 36 grams per day for men and 6 teaspoons or 25 grams for women (maybe skip some of February’s food celebrations).

Get moving. Some estimate that lack of physical activity doubles your risk of dying from heart disease. But, exercising at a moderate pace for 150 minutes per week can reduce risks of heart attack or stroke as much as 11 percent. Exercise strengthens the heart muscle, improves circulation in small blood vessels around the heart, lowers blood pressure, helps control blood sugar levels and improves cholesterol levels.

Do it for your Valentine! If we are old enough, most of us know someone who has experienced a heart attack or stroke. If they were lucky, they were able to get prompt and effective treatment and made a full recovery. Unfortunately, heart disease may give us no warnings or we may not recognize or treat the symptoms. Understanding heart disease, making good lifestyle choices and knowing the symptoms can help prevent the tragedy of this silent killer.

For information about symptoms, see the following information from Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, bit.ly/heartsymptoms

Leslie Shallcross is a registered dietitian and the Tanana District health, home and family development agent for Cooperative Extension Service, a part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, working in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She can be reached at 907-474-2426 or lashallcross@alaska.edu.