February may be best known as the month we may shower our loved ones with heart-shaped cards, candy and gifts on Valentine’s Day. But it’s also American Heart Month, when we are reminded to take care of our actual hearts.

Dr. Cary Schnitzer is medical director for OptumCare Arizona.

Heart disease continues to be the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States and the second-largest killer in Arizona. The risk of heart disease increases three-fold with each advancing decade. Women are at a higher risk after age 55, while men are at a greater risk after age 45. According to the American Heart Association, about 66 percent of cardiovascular deaths occur in people age 75 and older.

Heart disease risk factors – such as aging and family history – may be out of your hands, but there are other factors that can be managed by making small lifestyle changes, even in our 50s and beyond. Some factors to keep in mind are activity, diet, existing health conditions, stress and sleep.

American Heart Month is a timely opportunity to share important information about this critical health issue. OptumCare Arizona is offering tips to help you and your loved ones get started on a path to better heart health. The earlier you start these healthy habits, the better.

Get Active. Small adjustments to your level of physical activity can reduce your risk of heart disease. Endurance or cardio exercises are the best for a healthy heart. Walking, running, hiking, swimming and biking, and aerobic-type classes are all great cardio. It is important to exercise three to five times a week.

Maintain a healthy diet. Eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, fish and whole grains. Cut down on foods high in cholesterol and sodium, and limit sugar-sweetened beverages.

Manage your blood pressure and cholesterol. High levels of LDL – the “bad” cholesterol – are a major risk for heart disease. Get screenings regularly to keep it under control. Manage your blood pressure with exercise, stress management and a low sodium diet, and quit smoking.

Control stress. Make time for hobbies or things you enjoy doing. Verbalizing frustration, expressing gratitude, laughing and engaging in social situations can also help manage stress.

Improve your sleep. Keep a regular sleep schedule, limit caffeine and don’t drink it past 2 p.m., and don’t exercise too close to bedtime to get better-quality sleep. Watching TV or using electronic devices before bed can also affect your sleep. Make sure to get 7-8 hours of sleep per night.

In addition to these tips, it is important to check with your doctor to find out your personal risk for heart disease and what actions are best for you and your lifestyle.


Dr. Cary Schnitzer is medical director for OptumCare Arizona.