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Their Life’s Simple 7 checklist can help you assess your risk and make a plan for taking steps to a healthier heart.

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Heart disease is the number one killer in America, taking over 650,000 lives a year. Helping people avoid being part of that statistic is one of the main reasons I became a dietitian. My grandfather passed away at 50 from heart complications and high cholesterol runs in my family. Genetics certainly play a role, as do some socioeconomic factors outside of your control, but there are some things you can do to help take care of your heart. The American Heart Association (AHA) developed Life's Simple 7, a list of seven risk factors to help you take note of where you are and where you can improve. You can even take an assessment on their site and find out your heart score to better gauge where you're at. If you want to make sure you're taking care of your heart, here are the seven areas identified by the AHA. 

1. Manage Blood Pressure 

Having elevated blood pressure increases your risk for heart disease and strokes. If you're not sure what your blood pressure is, you can get it checked at your doctor's office and many pharmacies (or get a home blood pressure monitor). Healthy blood pressure is defined as 120/80 mmHG (systolic/diastolic). Some things you can do to help: reduce stress, exercise and watch your sodium intake. (These are the best and worst foods to eat for your blood pressure.)

2. Control Cholesterol 

Knowing your cholesterol numbers is also important when it comes to a healthy heart. It's something most doctors check for at your annual physical. A total cholesterol of over 200 mg/dL is considered high, but it's not just your total number that matters. There's "good" HDL cholesterol and "bad" LDL cholesterol. (Here's a closer look at what you should know about cholesterol numbers).

If your numbers are high, eating more good-for-you foods and exercise can help. Here are 10 foods that can help prevent high cholesterol

3. Reduce Blood Sugar 

We often think of blood sugar as being important when you have diabetes, but keeping blood sugar in a healthy range is also important for your heart. Having elevated blood sugar levels over time can damage your heart. The good news? Most of the advice for better blood sugar is just general healthy eating advice. Choose fiber-rich carbohydrates more often (think whole grains, fruit, vegetables, beans) and pair your carbs with healthy fats and protein to slow the absorption of sugar into your bloodstream. Here are 12 healthy ways to lower your blood sugar.

Woman working out at home
Credit: Getty Images / Luis Alvarez

4. Get Active

Moving your body is so important. Not only is it great for your heart, it's great for your joints (and blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol) but also your mental health (here's more about the mental benefits of exercise). If you're not currently exercising, think small. Start moving a little bit more here and there. Take a 10-minute walk, do squats after you brush your teeth or add a few yoga stretches to your pre-bed routine. Try these 5 Best Exercises for Your Health, According to a Harvard Doctor (every little bit helps). 

5. Eat Better

Changing up what you eat can definitely help your heart. Try not to stress about any diet changes and just like exercise, start small. Certain foods help keep your heart healthy—think vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains, seafood and healthy fats. Some foods and nutrients should be limited, like sodium, refined grains, added sugar, saturated fat and processed meats. This list of heart-healthy foods can help you figure out what to buy at the grocery store or try one of our 25-minute heart-healthy dinner recipes.

6. Lose Weight 

Not everyone needs to lose weight, but dropping pounds may help reduce the burden on your heart. Having a BMI of 30 or more is associated with cardiac complications, according to research. Doing some of the other things on this list—like upping your movement and getting more vegetables in your diet—can help you lose weight. Just a small amount of weight loss can make a big difference for your heart. Here are some tips for how to lose weight when you're not sure where to start.

7. Stop Smoking

Cigarettes are neither good for your cancer risk, nor your heart. Smoking is linked to about 33% of all heart disease deaths. If you currently smoke, try to quit. The AHA has tips to help you give up tobacco.

Welcome to The Beet. A weekly column where nutrition editor and registered dietitian Lisa Valente tackles buzzy nutrition topics and tells you what you need to know, with science and a little bit of sass.