Heart disease is a general term referring to several types of heart conditions. The most common form of heart disease in the United States is coronary artery disease (CAD).

CAD occurs when the major blood vessels supplying blood to your heart become damaged or diseased. This is often associated with atherosclerosis. When plaque is deposited on the arteries' walls, the vessels become less flexible, and narrowing can occur, contributing to decreased blood flow. As a result, the heart cannot get enough blood, which supplies the necessary nutrients and oxygen, to work correctly. If this occurs, the heart muscle will weaken, increasing the risk of heart failure, chest pain, or a heart attack.

"In the United States, someone has a heart attack every 40 seconds, so knowing your risk and taking steps to prevent this is more important than ever," says Diane Reinhold, University of Illinois Extension nutrition and wellness educator. "Although heart disease is the leading cause of death in America, each of us can take steps to reduce our risk of developing heart disease."

Research shows adopting a healthy lifestyle, especially if you have a high genetic risk, can reduce your relative risk of developing CAD by nearly 50%. “Understanding how lifestyle can increase your risk of developing heart disease can help you make the necessary changes to reduce your risk,” Reinhold says.

Illinois Extension will highlight many of these heart-healthy tips during a social media campaign for American Heart Month throughout February. The campaign will provide practical tips related to increasing knowledge about heart disease and steps to prevent and manage it.

"You can begin by eating healthy and moving more," Reinhold says. "Eating a healthy diet focused on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, lean animal proteins, fish, and healthy fats has many health benefits, including reducing cholesterol and blood pressure."

Other suggestions to further reduce risk include limiting refined carbohydrates, processed meats, sodium, added sugar, and saturated fats.

"Engaging in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a week will also help decrease your risk of developing heart disease," Reinhold says. "Physical activity is truly one of the best things you can do for your health. It strengthens your heart, improves blood flow to the small vessels throughout the body, and increases your healthy HDL cholesterol."

In addition to this campaign, Illinois Extension is offering a four-week webinar series, Health at Home: Healthy Eats for a Healthy Beat, at no cost. Each 30-minute class will explore key nutrients for improving heart health and will be followed by a live food demonstration showing how to prepare a heart-healthy meal.

The classes are held at 11 a.m. each Thursday, beginning Feb. 18 and running through March 11. Following each webinar, there will be a ten-minute Q & A session. Register at go.illinois.edu/jsw or call (815) 235-4125. If you will need an accommodation to participate, please contact our office by calling (815) 235-4125. Early requests are strongly encouraged to allow sufficient time to meet your access needs.

Source: Diane Reinhold, MPH, MS, RDN, University of Illinois Extension, Nutrition & Wellness Educator serving Jo Daviess, Stephenson, and Winnebago Counties. For more about upcoming programming on nutrition and wellness, visit go.illinois.edu/jsw or call (815) 235-4125.