MADIGAN ARMY MEDICAL CENTER, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. -- Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. Often, people think heart disease affects men more often than it affects women. This is not true. Heart disease affects men and women equally.

The buildup of plaque in blood vessels is the source of most health concerns related to heart disease. The extra plaque can cause the blood vessels to harden making it difficult for the heart to pump blood; the plaque can then break off and clog a smaller part of the blood vessel. This causes a heart attack or stroke.

The three major risk factors of heart disease are high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking.

About half of the people in the U.S. have at least one risk factor of heart health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report the age of developing risk factors for heart disease is younger than it used to be.

Lifestyle changes can affect the risk factors mentioned above and improve your heart health. A heart healthy eating pattern includes more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat proteins, and less unhealthy fats and sodium. Matching the amount of food you eat to the amount of food your body needs is a major way to enhance your heart health.

Finding the balance between healthy and unhealthy fat can be challenging. Eating less saturated fat and trans-fats, such as those found in fried foods and red meats, is an important shift to make to improve heart health. Including more unsaturated fats and omega-3 fats in your diet, such as those found in fatty fish like salmon and olive oil, is key.

The chief of Outpatient Nutrition at Madigan, 1st Lt. Vladi Ivanova, has a few tips to help heart health.

"I believe that enjoying a varied diet is the easiest way to promote heart health. Think about eating fish a few times per week, enjoying multiple fruits and vegetables that are different in flavors and colors, sprinkling nuts and seeds to meals and using olive and safflower oils instead of butter or coconut oil," she said.

She also said simple changes, such as those listed, are effective and can lead to long-term heart health and lifestyle modification.

Ivanova also expressed how difficult it is to change the way you view food if you enjoy your current eating habits. She encouraged small changes that can have lasting benefits on your heart health.

"Remember to experiment with other herbs and spices besides salt and if completely removing your butter is too challenging, maybe consider reducing your use by half and substituting it for heart healthy oils like safflower or olive oils," Ivanova said.

These lifestyle changes can reduce the buildup of plaque in your blood vessels. Remember, small long-term changes that you can sustain are better than drastic short-term changes.