By Danielle Spano

Your heart has an important job: it provides your body with the blood, oxygen and nourishment it needs to function, and keeping your heart healthy is vital. The Centers for Disease Control reports that in the United States, a heart attack occurs every 40 seconds, and at least one person dies each minute from heart disease. Scary, huh?

Heart disease refers to many conditions including but not limited to chest pain caused from insufficient blood to the heart, called angina; arrhythmia, an irregular heartbeat; cardiomyopathy, an enlarged heart; and heart failure, where the heart cannot pump a sufficient amount of blood for the body. The most common type is coronary artery disease (often called coronary heart disease). This condition is caused by a buildup of cholesterol (plaque) in the artery walls, hindering or blocking the flow of blood to the heart. Coronary artery disease weakens the heart over time and can lead to a heart attack.

Heart disease does not discriminate; it is the leading cause of death for most ethnicities nationwide. The risks are widespread, with some you cannot change and some you can control. While heart disease and heart attacks can occur at any age, your risk increases as you get older. Women’s risk for heart disease increases after menopause, but men have a larger risk than women overall. As with many diseases, family history of heart disease increases your risk as well. You cannot control your age, gender and heredity, but there are some risks associated with lifestyle choices.

Unhealthy behaviors can increase your risk of heart disease. Tobacco use damages the heart and blood vessels, raises blood pressure and drastically increases the risk of heart disease. High blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol can result from physical inactivity, high alcohol intake and poor diet. “Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of all Americans, but 80 percent of heart disease is preventable,” Dr. Michael Jansen, a cardiologist with The Cardiac and Vascular Institute in Gainesville, said. “Making small changes like eating healthier and exercising more can have a big impact on your overall heart health.”

The American Heart Association recommends several ways to lower you risk for heart disease. First, incorporate regular physical activity into your life to strengthen your heart muscle, lower your blood pressure and lose weight. Next, watch what you eat! Eat foods that are low in sodium, increase your good cholesterol, lower your bad cholesterol, reduce your blood sugar levels and help you to maintain a healthy weight. Finally, if you are smoking, then stop! Not only will quitting lower your risk for heart disease, but also for lung disease and stroke.

You lead a fairly healthy life and assume heart disease will never happen to you, right? Neither did Robert Gonzalez, who had a heart attack at just 24. Robert was an average 24-year-old — he did not pay much attention to a healthy diet but lifted weights to stay in shape. He had no family history of heart attack and was not a smoker. With his wedding in two weeks, he was focused on the love in his heart and not heart disease. He was driving back to Gainesville from a trip to South Florida and started vomiting every 10 minutes. Finally, he had to pull over and call his fiancé to arrange for someone to pick him up, as he could not continue to drive. At first, his fiancé thought his trip must have rivalled “The Hangover” movies to be vomiting so often, but that was not the case. After continuing to vomit for hours on end, he was brought to North Florida Regional Medical Center.

His test results perplexed doctors with readings not right for a 24-year-old. He had a heart attack and was having another. “No one really knows what their sign is for a heart attack. Everyone assumes it’s chest pain and your left arm. That’s not the case,” said Gonzalez. “From what I’ve learned, everyone has their own thing, and mine is throwing up. That was my body saying ‘there’s something wrong’.” Doctors determined he had clogged arteries and that 25 percent of his heart was not working. They were able to remove the blockages, but Gonzalez was forced to spend five days in the intensive care unit and had to postpone the wedding to allow for a full recovery. This was just the beginning of how heart disease would change his life. But do not worry, the heart wants what it wants, and the happy couple eventually got married in a small ceremony.

He immediately began a reduced sodium diet, allowing no more than 1500 mg per day, started following a very modified workout regimen, and went to the doctor four times a year to check his heart health. His diligence paid off, impressing the doctors after the first year with great progress with his cholesterol and stress tests and was reduced to only two checkups a year. It took three years of following the diet and exercise routine to get the green light to begin lifting weights again. After five years, he made enough progress to be taken off blood thinners. Just recently, Gonzalez was advised he is now only required to visit the doctor once a year. These changes were not temporary, but a new lifestyle for the whole Gonzalez family. Even though there was no family history of heart disease, once their daughter turns five, she will be tested to ensure she has a healthy heart.

Regardless of your heart disease risk factor, it is never too late (or too early) to start living a heart healthy life. Do not wait for a wakeup call like a heart attack to start making changes. Start taking care of your heart today!