Heart disease is a top killer worldwide -- but our lifestyle choices can go a long way toward reducing our risk. We round up the basics to living well. It may be the strongest muscle in your body, but your heart is still vulnerable to disease. Each year, cardiovascular disease claims over 17 million lives around the world. By 2030, that number could reach 23 million, according to the World Heart Federation. It’s one of the top causes of death worldwide — even in countries that have access to health care and prevention.

Medicine has come a long way preventing and treating cardiovascular disease and saving lives, but we have to do our part too. Lifestyle choices can make a difference in how long and how well we live. Here’s what experts say we should be doing to live a heart-healthy lifestyle. Enjoy a healthy diet We often hear that this or that food is good for the heart, but you don’t need to load up on super foods. Experts still say the best way to get those beneficial good fats and essential nutrients is through eating a healthy and varied diet.

Eating well shouldn’t feel like deprivation with heart healthy foods like salmon, nuts, olive oil, legumes, lean meats and low-fat dairy. Foods that are high in fibre also help lower cholesterol. And dare we say eat more fruits and vegetables? They’re packed with essential vitamins and nutrients we need for good over all health — like antioxidants, beta carotene and vitamin C, to name a few. We know what foods shouldn’t be staples in our diet: bad fats (like saturated fats and trans fats), processed foods and foods high in sugars and salt. These foods can contribute to weight gain, unhealthy cholesterol levels, glucose intolerance and chronic inflammation in the body — all of which take a toll on the heart.

Drink in moderation (if at all)

While some studies have shown that alcohol — particularly red wine — offers some small heart protective benefits, but experts advise caution. Consuming too much alcohol can increase heart risk and contribute to weight gain, liver disease, chronic inflammation and other conditions. How much is too much? For some people there is no safe amount — like if you’re taking certain medications or have certain health conditions. Otherwise, guidelines recommend no more than one or two standard drinks per day to a limit of nine per week for women and 14 for men. However, experts don’t recommend starting drinking as a prevention strategy.

Get active (and stay active)

Exercise has many benefits for the heart– such as lowering blood pressure, helping control blood sugar levels, maintaining a healthy weight, reducing stress and increasing good cholesterol levels. Experts estimate that people who aren’t currently active can cut their risk of a heart attack by as much as 35-55 per cent simply by getting more exercise.

Aim for a healthy weight

Those extra pounds contribute to heart disease as well as conditions that impact the heart like diabetes, high blood pressure and high blood cholesterol. However, obtaining and maintaining a healthy weight requires lifestyle changes, not just short-term sacrifice. Experts say slow weight loss — about one to two pounds (or one kilogram) a week — is best. Fad diets aren’t sustainable, and your body starts to deplete muscle mass when it goes into starvation mode. If you need a little help beyond exercise and a healthy diet, talk to your doctor. Some health issues like hypothyroidism and drug side effects can impact your weight. For more information, visit the Heart and Stroke Foundation’s Healthy Weight Action Plan™. Manage blood pressure Experts warn that high blood pressure (or hypertension) is one of the most dangerous risk factors for heart disease.

Worse yet, incidence is on the rise. According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation, hypertension affects one in five people. If you can control your blood pressure, you can cut your heart attack risk by up to 25 per cent — and your risk of stroke by up to 40 per cent. Beware: hypertension is called the “silent killer” for a reason — there are no warning signs or symptoms. That’s why it’s important to have your blood pressure checked at least once every two years after the age of 20 — more often if you already have hypertension — and keep up with your healthy habits like exercising and cutting your sodium intake. Control cholesterol Are you within a healthy range? Nearly 40 per cent of Canadians have blood cholesterol levels that are higher than they should be — and dangerous levels of plaque could be building up in their arteries.

Atherosclerosis, or narrowing of the arteries, is a significant risk factor for circulatory problems, heart disease and stroke. Again, you won’t experience symptoms. That’s why experts recommend getting regular checks — otherwise healthy men should start after age 40, and women over age 50 or following menopause. How can you get the number down? Diet plays a role — and experts recommend steering clear of those saturated fats, trans fats and dietary cholesterol and choosing polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats instead. Fibre can also help lower bad LDL cholesterol — including foods with plant sterols.