While it’s always a good time to think about your heart, February is officially American Heart Month.

One out of every four deaths — about 600,000 — in the United States is related to heart disease, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control.

Louisiana is part of what researchers have called the “heart failure belt,” six Southern states where heart disease-related deaths are much more likely than the national average.

Here’s what Dr. Steven Kelley, a cardiologist with Southeastern Cardiovascular Consultants in Baton Rouge and president of the board of the local American Heart Association chapter, says about how to care for your heart:

What causes heart disease, our genes or our lifestyle?

“I think lifestyle to a certain degree will affect us all. There are some patients who are at higher risk than others. Family history plays a big role in this, but smoking and not doing the right things are going to put you at a higher risk of having problems.”

How can you lower your risk?

“Diet and exercise are very important. You basically need to do some form of cardio (walking, running, bicycling) at least 30 minutes at least five to seven days a week. Then your diet is going to be a work in progress.”

What kind of diet can help prevent heart disease?

“As many fruits and vegetables as you can eat will be beneficial to you. … As much as you can. Not a lot of carbs. Back away from the pastas and bread as much as you can.”

When should we start worrying about our hearts?

“We really want to start educating kids as young as middle school so they can create a habit of exercising, a habit of being cautious about dietary things and obviously no drugs, alcohol or smoking. Those are big risk factors, too.”

Can stress cause heart disease?

“I don’t know that we can directly relate stress. Everybody tries. Everybody has an opinion about it. … There are some people who do link emotional stress. It can cause symptoms of chest pains. But will stress alone make your arteries have blockage? I don’t think so.”

Signs of stroke

A stroke happens quickly. The faster you get treatment, the better the prognosis for recovery, according to the National Stroke Association. If treated within three hours, a clot-busting drug can be administered that can reduce long-term disability from stroke. Here are the American Heart Association’s stroke symptoms:

  • Numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially if the feeling is limited to one side of the body.
  • Confusion, trouble talking or understanding people.
  • Difficulty seeing in one or both eyes.
  • Dizziness, loss of balance or a lack of coordination.
  • Severe headache with no cause.

Heart attack warnings

Heart attacks can come quickly and intensely, but many of them start slowly, according to the American Heart Association. These symptoms could signal a coming heart attack:

  • Discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts for several minutes or leaves and returns. It often feels like squeezing or fullness.
  • Pain in the arms, back, neck, jaw or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath, with or without chest discomfort.

Breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea and being light-headed.

  • Get heart strong

Just 30 minutes of exercise a day can go a long way toward strengthening your heart.

‘Busy at work’?

The American Heart Association recommends everyone participate in some type of aerobic exercise for half an hour a day for at least five days a week.

It can be walking, jogging or bicycling — any routine that increases your heart rate, says Dr. Douglas Mendoza, a cardiologist at Ochsner Health System in Baton Rouge.

“I have a lot of patients who are so-called ‘busy at work,’” Mendoza says. “A lot of the studies of exercise physiology show that 10 minutes of walking three times a day is just as good as 30 minutes of just a straight walk.”

So Mendoza recommends busy desk jockeys walk in the morning, at lunch and after work for a few minutes. Anyone who has been sedentary for a while or who has a family history of heart disease should contact a doctor before starting an exercise regimen. Here are some more tips from Mendoza and Ochsner on exercise:

Warm up. Take it easy for the first five minutes to avoid aches and pains later.

Exercise moderately. Don’t push too hard. You should be able to keep up a conversation while working out.

Cool down. After your workout, give your body time to recover. Stretch and walk around slowly.