February is Heart Health Month and the occasion is a chance for Arkansans to learn how to better ensure their long-term heart health, an expert said.

“Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the nation,” said Teresa Henson, an Extension specialist – nutrition outreach coordinator at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

“One in four deaths are caused by the condition. In today’s world, more people are at a risk of heart disease earlier in life because of high obesity and blood pressure rates,” Henson said.

Since heart disease or other heart complications can occur at any age, it is important that all individuals learn about the behaviors or conditions that put them at risk for heart disease, as well as the preventative steps they can take.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), common factors that put individuals at risk of heart disease include:

• Diabetes. Having diabetes can cause sugar to build up and harm the blood vessels and nerves that help the heart muscle.

• Physical inactivity. Being physically active can help build a strong heart and maintain healthy blood vessels. However, only one in five adults meets the physical activity recommendation of 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity a week.

• Obesity. The hearts of overweight individuals are under a greater amount of stress. One in three American adults and one in six children ages 2 to 19 are obese.

• Unhealthy eating habits. Most American adults and some children eat more salt than needed in their diet. Consuming too much salt increases blood pressure. Though the consumption of fruits and vegetables can help lower blood pressure, only one in 10 adults gets the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables they need each day.

Henson said there are a number of ways all individuals can help ensure their hearts are in optimal condition. Even changing some simple behaviors can have a positive effect over time. She recommends the following tips:

• Encourage the family to use spices for seasoning their food instead of salt.

• Prepare food low in trans fats, saturated fat, added sugar and sodium.

• When serving dinner, make sure half your plate consists of fruits, vegetables and other foods low in sodium.

• Get active. Make sure the whole family is active for at least 150 minutes per week. Aim to exercise in 10-minute or 30-minute chunks of time.

• Know your numbers. Visit your physician to help control your blood pressure and cholesterol.

• Avoid smoking. If you are not already a smoker, do not start the habit. If you are a smoker, contact your physician – he or she can provide you with resources to help kick the habit.

“Heart Health Month is a great opportunity for all individuals – both adults and children – to consider the importance of their heart and the affect they have on it,” Henson said. “This awareness can help them take the steps necessary to live longer, healthier lives.”

The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff offers all its Extension and Research programs and services without discrimination.

— Will Hehemann is a writer/editor with the UAPB School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences.