February is American Heart Month. Find out how to protect your heart, and extend your life.

February is American Heart Month. Find out how to protect your heart, and extend your life.

This February Fierce not only joins the American Heart Association in commemorating American Heart Month, it also celebrates the 10th anniversary of the AHA’s Go Red for Women campaign — a national initiative to prevent heart disease in women that has helped millions protect their health.

Heart disease is a leading killer of women. Among African-American women ages 20 and older, 46.9 percent have cardiovascular disease. The numbers are daunting, but when it comes to heart disease, forewarned is forearmed. By following a few simple, effective methods of prevention, you can dramatically lower your risks and add years to your life.

To kick off our heart disease prevention coverage this month, here’s the latest advice on beating heart disease from the American Heart Association  and members of the cardiology team at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, including Icilma Fergus, M.D., director of the Center for Cardiovascular Disparities who runs the Harlem Healthy Hearts program; Beth Oliver, D.N.P., R.N., vice president of Clinical Operations; and Mary Ann McLaughlin, M.D., medical director of the Cardiac Health Program.

1. Know your numbers. You may have heard this before, but it bears repeating — you must keep track of blood pressure, total cholesterol (including the ratio of good-to-bad cholesterol) from the time you are in your mid-20s. Just consider it a regular part of taking care of your health, like getting your teeth cleaned or having a mammogram.

Add this AHA “Know Your Numbers” link to your list of browser favorites. It’s a great way to learn how to monitor your health.

2. Eat to live. Do not live to eat. Most of us are conscious of our weight, but trying out a new fad diet every year just before bathing-suit season is not the best way to protect your heart. Eating heart healthy means sticking with a diet rich in colorful fruits, vegetables, fiber, and low-fat proteins every day. Consume lots of fish if you’re not allergic. (Otherwise seek another source of Omega-3 fatty acids, such as flax seeds.)

Avoid high-fat, high-salt, high-sugar foods and go easy on red meat. Drink lots of water (not soft drinks) and munch on nuts, apples and berries. Your waistline and your heart will thank you.

3. Keep moving. Commit to a minimum of 30 minutes of exercise each day, even if it’s just a speed walk from your car to the front door. Exercise lowers your risk of heart attacks and strokes, and it helps to keep your blood pressure in check, in addition to easing stress and lightening your mood. If you do not have time to go to a gym or set up a home workout, pick up a personal fitness tracker, like Fitbit. You just strap it on (it’s slim, elegant and available in a range of styles and colors), and it helps you keep track of how many steps you’re taking each day and how many calories you’re burning, among other important health indicators, like how well you sleep.

4. Go below 35. Curvaceous, voluptuous figures are a gift shared by many black women, but you want to keep a careful eye on one aspect of your body that’s a key contributor to heart disease and that’s the amount of fat you carry around your waist.

If your waist measures more than 35 inches, you are at a higher risk of developing heart disease as well as metabolic syndrome.  The syndrome is a group of risk factors that include high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and an increased risk of diabetes.

For help achieving and maintaining a healthy weight, try the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) Diet. This is not a trendy weight-loss plan. DASH is an easy-to-follow, healthy lifestyle plan developed by the National Institutes of Health. Studies prove that the diet is highly effective at not only helping you reduce the size of your waist, but also decreasing your risk of many diseases, including some kinds of cancer, stroke, heart disease, heart failure, kidney stones and diabetes.

5. Stick to one alcoholic drink a day. Even if you successfully manage your weight, drinking more than one drink a day, or binge drinking on weekends, can damage your heart over time by increasing your blood pressure and possibly causing dangerous disruptions in heart rhythm. So enjoy one favorite cocktail, then switch to non-alcoholic fare.

6. Don’t smoke. If you do smoke, quit. And be aware that electronic cigarettes have not been tested to assess long-term health risks, so they should only be used as a short-term part of a smoking-cessation program. Smoking threatens your lungs and weakens the walls of your arteries. It’s the No. 1 risk factor for women when it comes to atherosclerosis and vascular diseases such as aneurysms, carotid artery disease or peripheral arterial disease — blockages of the arms and legs.

If you’re having a tough time kicking the habit, the American Lung Association can help. They offer free resources, support programs and recommendations from experts on how to give up tobacco for good.

7. Know the signs of a heart attack. The idea that the only sign of a heart attack is a sharp pain in the left arm comes from studies conducted exclusively on men. Each year, more than 200,000 women (most of them over age 50) lose their lives to heart attack, in part because they do not know the warning signs that signal they need to call for help, quickly.

Here’s what you should watch for:  shortness of breath at rest, uncomfortable pressure, squeezing or pain in your chest like you’ve never felt before, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, lightheadedness, a cold sweat or flu-like feeling, extreme fatigue and pain in the arm, back, neck, or jaw. Print out the AHA’s list of critical warning signs of a heart attack or stroke to help you and your family members become familiar with potentially life-saving advice.

8. Listen to your body. Overall, shortness of breath over time and especially swelling of the legs are not signs of a heart attack, but they are possibly signs of an increased risk of congestive heart failure. This occurs when your heart becomes too weak to pump blood throughout your body effectively, so the signs cannot be ignored. Congestive heart problems can be treated and managed, so talk to your doctor right away if the symptoms occur.

9. Know your personal risks. African Americans are at a higher risk for heart attacks and strokes than other members of the population. Your risk increases if close family members have a history of heart disease — especially if they developed it early in life. Talk to family members and adjust your lifestyle accordingly.

10. Protect yourself during pregnancy. Even if you are perfectly healthy when you become pregnant, you are at risk for developing gestational diabetes. In addition to increasing your risk of diabetes and heart disease, gestational diabetes can create pregnancy complications. The risk exists for women of all cultures, but African-American women and women who become pregnant over age 35 have a higher risk. To protect yourself and your baby, and to lower your lifetime risk of heart disease, get tested and maintain a healthy weight during your pregnancy.