HOUSTON (February 15, 2016)

According to the American Heart Association, heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States, killing more than 370,000 people each year. February is National Heart Month and a time to raise awareness of heart disease and the steps that can be taken to prevent it.

Heart disease is a term used to describe a number of conditions involving narrowed or blocked blood vessels that can lead to a heart attack, chest pain or stroke. Many forms of heart disease can be prevented or treated with healthy lifestyle choices.

“Preventing the first heart attack is important to lowering the risk for heart disease,” says Dr. Marlos Fernandes, M.D., cardiovascular disease specialist, affiliated with . “Many of the risk factors associated with heart disease can be controlled by getting plenty of exercise and eating a healthy, low sodium and low fat diet.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 7 in every 10 people having their first heart attack have high blood pressure. “Hypertension is the number one cause of stroke and heart attack in this country,” says Dr. Fernandes. “If left untreated it can also lead to congestive heart failure, where the pumping function of the heart gradually deteriorates.”

High cholesterol is another risk factor for heart attacks. “Excess cholesterol over time leads to plaque buildup in arteries, which can directly lead to heart attack or stroke,” says Dr. Fernandes.

Dr. Fernandes offers these simple tips to improving your heart health:

Dr. Fernandes recommends an annual physical to help monitor the risk factors for heart disease. “With quick laboratory work, physical exam and history we can accurately predict the risk of cardiac events during the following 10 years and plan ahead to prevent it,” says Dr. Fernandes.

You can learn more about Memorial Hermann Heart and Vascular Institute by visiting heart.memorialhermann.org.