Cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death in the United States, not only for men but also for women. It claims the life of nearly one woman every minute of the day. If you have a family history of heart attack or stroke, you have an added risk. Yet, a study by the American Heart Association (AHA) showed that less than half of the women surveyed were aware that heart disease is their biggest threat to health and longevity.

Empower yourself by making heart-healthy lifestyle choices to help reduce your chance of experiencing a heart attack or developing heart disease. According to AHA, maintaining a healthy lifestyle is the most important thing you can do for your heart.

1. Exercise your body.
Being overweight or obese increases your chance for heart disease. Doing regular physical workouts can help you maintain a healthy weight and lower your cholesterol and blood pressure. The latest Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services suggest the following to help lower your risk of early death from heart disease:

  • At least two and a half hours of moderate-intensity physical exercise per week (or around 30 minutes of moderate activity per day, five days per week), such as brisk walking.
  • If you're unable to exercise for 30 minutes straight, then a series of shorter sessions that are at least 10 minutes long count toward your weekly total.
  • Both aerobic exercise (such as biking or swimming) and muscle-strengthening exercise (such as weight training) are beneficial.

2. Eat heart-healthy foods.
Certain foods can lead to weight gain and can negatively impact your arteries, blood pressure, and blood sugar. Avoid or limit fatty, greasy, high-cholesterol foods, such as:

  • Butter
  • Cold cuts
  • Full-fat milk or ice cream
  • Fried foods

Instead, opt for a lower-fat, lower-calorie diet that includes plenty of the following:

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Fish
  • Legumes (such as beans)
  • Lean meats

3. Get screened.
Knowing your numbers for blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose levels can help ensure that you stay in a heart-healthy range. Your healthcare provider can check these numbers using simple screening tests and can explain to you what the numbers mean and what actions you may need to take to protect your heart. He or she can also tell you how often you need testing, based on your age and risk factors.

4. Talk to your doctor.
Women have specific needs in terms of treatment options for lowering risk of heart disease. When your ovaries stop producing estrogen during menopause, cardiovascular plaque builds up and your risk for heart disease increases.

Recent studies suggest that women shouldn't use menopausal hormone therapy to protect against heart disease. Instead, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends aspirin for women ages 55-79. This treatment option has been shown to lower the risk of ischemic stroke for women in this age range; however, it also carries the risk of gastrointestinal bleeding. Your doctor can help you understand more about menopause and your risk factors and decide which treatment option is best for you.

5. Keep stress in check.
One of the best preventive measures you can take for your heart is to care for your mental health. Stress, anxiety, and depression have all been linked to increased risk of heart disease. Be proactive about minimizing the stress in your life. Take time to unwind and recover from busy days--even when you feel like you don't have the time. Do things that you find enjoyable and relaxing to help balance out work and responsibilities.

Also be sure to get good sleep, as lack of sleep is another risk factor for cardiovascular problems. Most adults need eight hours of sleep to wake up feeling refreshed. By making these steps a part of your regular routine, you can help protect your heart for the long haul.