February is Heart Month, but many people concerned about their heart health might be overlooking a major risk factor.

Most people know that smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer, but they might not realize that it also increases their risk for heart disease and heart attack.

Compared to nonsmokers, smokers have six times the risk of heart attack and two to four times the risk of heart disease, said Julie Florian, Health Promotion Strategies program director for seven western Iowa counties.

Smoking also increases people’s cholesterol level, Florian said.

“It increases the bad (LDL) cholesterol and reduces the good (HDL) cholesterol,” she said.

Electronic cigarettes are also bad for people, because they generally contain nicotine, Florian said.

“It affects their entire body,” she said. “If they use nicotine products, there are going to be some heart side effects.”

In Pottawattamie County, 22 percent of adults smoke, compared to the state average of 19 percent, Florian said. However, 14 percent of youth smoke – less than the state average of 17 percent.

Many Iowans are actively trying to quit smoking. According to Florian, 1,200 people call Quitline Iowa each year. There, quit coaches help them design an easy-to-follow quitting plan so they can live the rest of their lives smoke-free.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States and in Iowa. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 26.6 million Americans have heart disease and more than 600,000 Americans die from it each year.

In 2010, there were 170 deaths from heart disease in Pottawattamie County, Florian said.

In 2010, heart disease claimed the lives of more than 3,300 Nebraska residents, accounting for approximately 1 in every 5 deaths.

The encouraging news is that 80 percent of heart disease cases can be prevented with lifestyle changes, according to the Iowa Department of Public Health.

Knowing your numbers is an important step towards preventing heart disease, said Terry Meek, health systems coordinator for the Iowa Department of Public Health Bureau of Chronic Disease Prevention. See a health care provider each year to determine personal risk-factor numbers. A medical provider might prescribe medications to help lower risk factors, especially if you have high blood pressure, high cholesterol or high glucose levels.

To learn more about the risk factors and what you can do to prevent heart disease, visit heart.org. The CDC also has information on Heart Month and controlling high blood pressure at cdc.gov. To reach Quitline Iowa, visit quitnow.net/iowa or call (800) QUIT-NOW (784-8669).

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