Heart disease is responsible for one in four deaths in the United States, making it the leading cause of death in our country. It is also a top cause of disability and a risk factor for stroke. At some point, heart disease could even affect you or someone you love. But here’s the good news: You have the power to prevent heart disease.

Taking charge of your heart health can add years to your life, reduce your health care costs and, perhaps most importantly, improve your quality of life so you can pursue the goals, activities, and relationships that are most meaningful to you. Here is my advice for leading a heart-healthy lifestyle.

Eat a healthy diet

The food you consume has a direct impact on every part of your body, including your heart. Look for minimally processed or unprocessed foods that have few ingredients and are as close to their natural state as possible, such as an apple, a salmon filet, fresh spinach or raw, unsalted almonds.

Increase your intake of fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, fish, olive oil and whole grains. The more colorful your plate, the better. Ideally, half your plate should contain vegetables, one quarter should include lean protein and the other quarter should contain whole grains.

I recommend limiting your intake of salt, which is often found in bread, cold cuts, frozen dinners and fast food; highly processed food, like granola bars and crackers; saturated fat, which is found in red meat and dairy products; trans fat, which occurs in processed foods that contain partially hydrogenated oils and in deep-fried foods; and added sugar, found in soda, desserts and even in bread or jarred tomato sauce. Read your nutrition labels so you know what you are eating.

Limit alcohol consumption

Drinking too much alcohol can harm your heart by increasing your blood pressure and cholesterol. If you choose to consume alcohol, have no more than one drink per day if you’re a woman and no more than two drinks per day if you’re a man.

Get regular physical activity

You don’t have to run a marathon to see improvements in your heart health.

Walking is one of the best workouts you can do, especially if you are new to exercise. It’s free, you can walk almost anywhere and it doesn’t require any equipment, except sturdy walking shoes. Work your way up to walking at least 30 minutes, five days a week.

You can also aim to get more steps during your daily activities. For example, you can take the stairs, park farther away at the grocery store or march in place during TV commercials. This shouldn’t replace a regular exercise routine, but it is a great way to get your body moving.

If you already exercise regularly, challenge yourself with a new class or take your routine outdoors. Our community has many wonderful, safe parks and trails you can enjoy.

Please note: Before beginning a new exercise regimen, talk to your doctor to ensure it is safe for you.

Know your numbers

See your doctor for a yearly physical. He or she will check your cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar and body mass index (BMI). Lowering these numbers can help reduce your heart disease risk, so talk to your physician about the right approach for you.

Reduce and manage stress

Stress affects all of us and can negatively impact heart health. Fortunately, there are many ways to reduce stress: Maintain strong relationships with family and friends, pray, exercise regularly, keep a gratitude journal, meditate, practice yoga, take deep breaths, or partake in your favorite hobby. If you have difficulty overcoming stress in your life, seek professional counseling, which can give you the tools to navigate life’s difficult situations.

Prioritize sleep

Aim for at least 8 hours of sleep a night. Set an alarm for 30 minutes before bed to signal that it’s time to start winding down for the evening. Many smartphones have apps that can help you with this. Find something that works for you and makes your bedtime routine easy.

Make sure your room is dark, cool and quiet. Use curtains or shades to block light, set your thermostat between 60 to 67 degrees, and use a white noise machine or fan to block noise.

Quit smoking

Smoking increases your risk of heart disease and lung cancer. To quit smoking, talk to your doctor or visit www.smokefree.gov. Even if you’ve tried to quit in the past, I encourage you to try again — your body will experience almost immediate benefits.

Start your journey now

It’s never too early or too late to take charge of your heart health. This journey includes good nutrition, regular exercise, knowing your numbers, stress reduction, quality sleep and smoking cessation. Remember, much of the power to prevent heart disease is in your hands.

If you are concerned about your heart health, you can schedule an appointment, often within 24 hours, at Pardee Cardiology Associates. Call 828-697-7377 or visit www.pardeehospital.org/care-treatment/heart-vascular/.