As the month of February approaches, our attention turns to matters of the heart. February is all about hearts - but not just the candy kind. It's also American Heart Month, a time to turn our thoughts to keeping families and communities free from heart disease.

Heart disease kills more women than cancer, diabetes and stroke. It will claim the lives of one in three, killing more than 400,000 each year. The good news is that a majority of these cases may be prevented through education and lifestyle changes.

Although heart disease is sometimes thought of as a “man’s disease,” fewer women than men survive their first heart attack.

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According to Dr. Mark Menolascino, author of the book, Heart Solution for Women: A Proven Program to Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease, women present differently and their heart disease signs may be subtle – anxiety, heartburn, nausea, digestive issues -  so it’s important to seek medical care at the first sign of a problem. He advises: If you think it’s your heart, get checked out because if you don’t, you may be dead wrong. We often don’t get a second chance.

Studies show that 90 percent of women have one or more risk factors for developing heart disease or stroke. Dr. Menolascino notes that with less exercise, higher stress, less nutritious food, and more toxins in our environment, there is so much stacked up against us that it makes it difficult for us to stay healthy.

A few of the risk factors and behaviors that put us at risk for heart disease include: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, obesity, diabetes, physical inactivity, and unhealthy eating habits.

While we face many challenges that make us feel helpless, we actually have tremendous control over our heart health. For years, doctors were taught that genes are a person’s destiny and that we have a fixed future from our ancestors. But, it is now known that genetics are changeable and genes are influenced by the choices we make. Altering our lifestyle puts us in the driver’s seat to preventing and/or reversing the conditions that may lead to heart disease.

Here are seven ways to keep your heart ticking:

  • Don’t smoke or use tobacco. Chemicals in tobacco can damage the heart and blood vessels. Cigarette smoke reduces the oxygen in the blood, which increases blood pressure and heart rate because the heart has to work harder to supply enough oxygen to the body and brain.
  • Exercise. Regular, daily physical activity can lower the risk of heart disease. Physical activity helps to control weight and reduce the chances of developing other conditions that may put a strain on the heart, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes.
  • Eat a heart healthy diet. According to the Mayo Clinic, a heart-healthy eating plan includes: vegetables and fruits, beans or other legumes, lean meats and fish, low-fat or fat-free dairy foods, whole grains, healthy fats, such as olive oil.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Even a small weight loss can be beneficial. Experts say that reducing weight by just 3 percent to 5 percent can help decrease certain fats in the blood (triglycerides), lower blood sugar (glucose) and reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes. Losing even more helps lower blood pressure and blood cholesterol level.
  • Get quality sleep. Most adults need at least seven hours of sleep each night.
  • Manage stress. Some people cope with stress in unhealthy ways — such as overeating, drinking or smoking. Finding alternative ways to manage stress — such as physical activity, relaxation exercises or meditation — can help improve overall health.
  • Get regular health screenings.

Listen to my conversation with Dr. Menolascino: