FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. -- Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women. In fact, the disease accounts for one of every four deaths in the United States, according to National Vital Statistics Reports.

Every 34 seconds someone dies from heart disease and if you don't take precautionary measures you could be one of them.

Heart disease refers to coronary artery disease, also known as coronary heart disease, which is a narrowing of the small blood vessels that supply blood and oxygen to the heart. There are several risk factors that lead to heart disease. They include high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, cigarette smoking, being overweight or obese, poor diet, physical inactivity, and alcohol use.

Studies show that nine out of 10 heart disease patients have at least one risk factor, and many don't even realize it.

One recent case study was a 34-year-old female who went to the doctor twice in one week with chest pain. Her doctor diagnosed her with ulcers because he thought she was too young to have a heart attack.

"The pain became very intense," she said. "The Emergency Room said there was nothing they could do."

The woman refused to leave and was later admitted for observation. Later, the doctor on duty saw her EKG and asked, "Where's the 34 year old who had the massive heart attack?"

Even with emergency surgery, the damage was done. Only part of her heart muscle functions now.

"I had had to quit the job I loved, and my life completely changed," she said.

There are several things you can do to reduce your risk of heart disease. The American Heart Association recommends heeding "The Simple 7" heart health factors.

Knowing your cholesterol level results is a good start. Cholesterol is a waxy substance found in the bloodstream and in your cells. Having cholesterol is normal, but too much can lead to heart attack and stroke.

Cholesterol comes from your body (hereditary) and food. The liver makes about 75 percent of it and foods contribute 25 percent. LDL is known as the "bad cholesterol." If your body has too much in your bloodstream it can clog your arteries and increase your chances of having a heart attack or stroke. A cholesterol level of 200 or more requires intervention.

To lower your cholesterol level and reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke, schedule a health screening, eat foods low in saturated and trans fat, increase your physical activity, and maintain a healthy weight. Choose vegetables (three cups of raw vegetables compared to a ½ cup serving of cooked vegetables), choose fresh fruits over fruit juice, eat fish containing omega-3 fatty acids (wild salmon, trout, or herring), take the skin off chicken and turkey, broil your food instead of frying, and choose milk that is 2 percent or 1 percent milk fat.

Keep your sodium intake at less than 1,500 milligrams per day. Limit your soda intake and increase your water consumption to at least two quarts daily unless your health care provider indicates otherwise.

Having high blood pressure means the blood in your arteries is flowing too forcefully which puts pressure on your arteries causing tears. The tears repair themselves and scar, but the scar tissue traps plaque and forms blockages.

High blood pressure is also a risk factor for heart disease. If your blood pressure is uncontrolled it can injure or even kill you.

Hypertension is known as the "silent killer" as it is usually asymptomatic. You should try to keep your blood pressure at 120/80. Having high blood pressure is not curable, but it is manageable.
Start today by getting your blood pressure checked for a baseline.

A body mass index of 25.0 kg/m2 and higher is considered overweight. There are 145 million people in the United States, age 20 and older, who are overweight or obese.

Obesity is the single biggest risk factor for heart disease. If you possess that extra tire around your middle, you're at a higher risk for high blood pressure, a high blood cholesterol level, and diabetes.

Diabetes is a controllable risk factor for heart disease. Your chances of having a stroke or heart attack increase by four times if you have diabetes.

With diabetes, blood sugar rises to dangerous levels. Much of our food turns into glucose or sugar. Having regular checkups to monitor blood sugar will keep you of your blood sugar level.

Medications or insulin may be used to correct an imbalance. Exercising and eating healthy are recommended to reduce your chances of developing diabetes.

Smoking is the most important preventable cause of premature death in the United States. Smoking also increases the risk of coronary artery disease.

Smoking also decreases the likelihood you'll do physical activity, decreases HDL (good cholesterol), and increases peripheral arterial disease, aortic aneurysms, and blood clots.

Parents should discuss the effects of smoking with their children. Smoking cessation classes are available by calling: (573) 596-0491/0518.

Lifestyle modification is welcomed for healthy living.

So, to lose weight and keep it off, and to improve your dietary intake, exercise regularly and commit to overall lifestyle improvement. Having a buddy system for support is also an excellent way to succeed.

For more information on heart disease and ways to help prevent it, call the Community Health Resource Center at (573) 596-0491/0518.

(Editor's note: Phyllis Jones is a health promotion director at General Leonard Wood Army Community Hospital)