When the topics of heart disease and stroke come up, we often think of them as primarily affecting men, but did you know that one in three women die of heart disease or stroke every year? Heart disease is in fact the number one killer of both men and women in the world and is responsible for more deaths than all cancers combined, and yet only one in five American women are aware of this threat.

Fortunately, there are ways for women (and men) to reduce their risk for heart disease through education, diet and lifestyle. In fact, it is estimated that through proper lifestyle changes we can reduce our risk for heart disease by as much as 80%. February is American Heart Month and good opportunity for all of us to learn more about what we can do to protect ourselves from this health risk and help ensure the well-being of our families.

1. Raise Awareness

The American Heart Association (AHA) created the Go Red For Women movement to address the lack of awareness of heart disease in women. Red symbolizes "strength, joy, and power," in this battle. Since its inception, Go Red For Women has made significant strides in encouraging women to make important diet and lifestyle changes to help reduce their health risks.

2. Be Informed

Despite the fact that they are more likely than men to suffer from a stroke or heart attack, most women surveyed could not identify most of the major symptoms. Learn to recognize the symptoms of a stroke or heart attack and know what to do when they occur as well as how to reduce our risk for them in the first place.

3. Eat Right

Our diet can have an important effect on our risk for heart disease. It is a good idea to reduce our consumption of fat, sugar, and salt, while avoiding processed and fast foods. A healthy diet focuses on fresh fruits, vegetables, lean meats, whole grains, and legumes. Foods high in fiber help to aid in digestion while moderating our blood sugar. Try to eat less red meat, and choose whole grain breads and pasta while eating less fried foods and simple carbs like white bread, white rice, and potatoes.

4. Be Active

Exercise is good for us on a number of levels: it gets our blood flowing, strengthens our brains, burns fat and calories, strengthens our heart, and is a good way to spend time with family and friends while building our self-esteem. Best of all, it can be fun. Health experts recommend at least 30 minutes of activity a day where your heart rate gets going at a good clip and you break out in a sweat.

5. Avoid Tobacco

I don't think anybody disputes the fact that smoking is bad for you, and if anything, given the amount of knowledge out there about cigarettes, it's hard to believe that people still smoke. Cigarettes contain chemical carcinogens and damage your heart and lungs in ways you can't imagine, not to mention making you smell bad and shortening your life. Plus, they are an expensive habit. If you smoke, then please quit, and if you don't, then please never start.

6. Reduce Stress

Every parent experiences stress now and then, and there is some thought that a little stress is beneficial. However, constant stress not only diminishes our quality of life, but it can wreck havoc on our physical and mental health, especially where our hearts are concerned. In fact, nearly half of adults in this country report suffering from stress related health problems, and a significant number of patient visits to the doctor's office are linked to stress. In an ideal world we would eliminate stress altogether, but more realistically, we should take steps to reduce it and cope with it more effectively.

For many of us, heart disease is a fact of life given the choices that we make, but that doesn't mean we can't take steps to make changes and protect ourselves. To learn more what you can do keep your heart healthy, talk to you doctor and visit the website of the American Heart Association. Before changing your diet or starting a new exercise regimen, consult with your physician.