A recent Cleveland Clinic survey found that more than a third of Americans with a family history of heart disease believe there is nothing they can do to limit their risk of developing that heart condition.

While it’s true you can’t change your family history, early screening and treatment has been shown to save lives. In addition, there is still a lot you can do lower your risk of developing cardiovascular problems.

Invest in a few simple steps, along with some lifestyle changes, to support your heart health.

• Talk to your doctor.  The first step to taking control of your heart health is to let your primary care provider know about your family history. If you have risk factors for heart disease, it’s important that you and your provider make a plan to reduce that risk.

• Eat for a healthy heart. Focusing on fresh, whole foods will lower your chances of developing three major heart disease risk factors – being overweight, having higher cholesterol and having high blood pressure. The best daily diet for a healthy heart includes a balance of fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy products, lean sources of protein like beans, fish and poultry, whole grains, and healthy, unsaturated fats. Minimize sodium, sugar, and saturated and trans fats. I recommend the Mediterranean diet to my patients.

• Move more. Exercise may be the “magic pill” that keeps your heart healthy – it helps keep cholesterol and blood pressure in healthy ranges, and it lowers your risk for heart disease and stroke. Look for an activity you enjoy, because the best exercise is one you will do for at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week.

• Be smoke free. Smoking is another significant risk factor for hastening heart problems. When combined with other risk factors, like family history, smoking further raises your chances of developing heart failure. Try to avoid second-hand smoke as well.

• Limit your alcohol intake. Continued, excessive intake of alcohol above recommended limits can increase your chances of heart failure. If you drink, do it in moderation. Certainly, if there are medications and/or medical issues, check with your physician to determine if it is wise to continue drinking as well.

• Reduce stress. Studies have shown that long-lasting stress can lead to increased blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides and blood sugar. All these can be risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Further, people often cope with stress poorly. This may lead to smoking, drinking alcohol or overeating. Work on efforts to reduce stress and promote healthy outlets to alleviate stress such as exercise, meditation, and strong support systems.

• Pay attention to your body. Your weight, blood pressure and heart rate can all play a role in your heart function, so monitor these numbers and alert your provider about any worrisome fluctuations. Other symptoms to be aware of include fatigue; nausea or lack of appetite; persistent wheezing coughing or shortness of breath; swelling of the feet and legs.

• Get vaccinated. COVID, flu and pneumonia can place extra stress on your heart, so it is important to get regular vaccinations against them.

Board-certified in general, nuclear and interventional cardiology, Dr. Stuart Smalheiser is a cardiologist with Beaufort Memorial Heart Specialists.