The month of February, also known as Heart Month, has become symbolic throughout the years. Love is in the air, and whether you are loving others or loving yourself, it’s a time to reflect on who or what is important in your life. The human heart in particular is not only the body’s most important organ, but, to most, it also represents love. Keeping you and your heart healthy should be a top priority, and Heart Month is the perfect time to treat yourself by understanding the risks and preventative measures related to heart disease and stroke.

The American Heart Association has been the leader in cardiovascular disease and stroke prevention since 1924. Last year, Jacksonville and beyond was saddened to hear about the loss of the highly respected and nationally acclaimed photographer, father, friend and partner, Paul Figura. Figura lost his life unexpectedly to a hemorrhagic stroke on Feb. 28, 2014, and the legacy that he left behind is enormous.

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Figura was heavily involved with the American Heart Association, and did so out of the kindness of his heart. His passion for life was contagious, and he gave countless hours to the organization with his photographic expertise. This year, the Jacksonville branch of the American Heart Association is putting on their second annual Heart Ride Goes Red, in memory of Figura. The event involves a motorcycle ride starting at Adamec Harley Davidson, and because Figura had a strong passion for motorcycles, the event is more than fitting to help celebrate his life. Not only will this be a remembrance of an extraordinary human being, but proceeds from the day will go toward raising awareness and future research.

According to the American Heart Association, stroke is a disease that affects the arteries leading to and within the brain. In the U.S., it is the No. 5 cause of death. Heart disease is the result of several problems related to plaque buildup in the walls of the arteries, and may make it more difficult for blood to flow.

Dr. Pamela Rama has been a North Florida-based cardiologist and in the heart health field for 19 years. She specializes in preventive cardiology otherwise known as general cardiology, and is the medical director for the HeartWise Prevention Program. Rama is also the current president of the American Heart Association of Florida, the First Coast Chapter. We spoke with Rama regarding some preventative measures and risk factors related to both heart disease and stroke.

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Void: Why should young people be concerned about their heart and and brain health?

Rama: Although most of the heart attack and strokes occur in older people, you can definitely see heart attack and stroke in younger people. For younger people, particularly in the age group 18 to 30, one of the strongest risk factors for heart attack and strokes, particularly in women, is smoking and the use of oral contraceptives. Women who smoke and use oral contraceptives are five times more likely to have a stroke than those who don’t, so that’s a very important distinction that most young people don’t realize.

Void: What are the risk factors for heart attack and stroke?

Rama: When you look at a map of stroke and heart disease in the U.S., the highest incidence of stroke and heart disease is seen in the Southeast corner, and unfortunately that touches Northeast Florida. The risk factors of heart attack and stroke are very similar; they are essentially the same. We divide them among risk factors that you can modify and risk factors that you can’t modify.

  • Things you can modify: Obesity, high blood pressure, smoking, poor diet, physical inactivity, diabetes, high cholesterol and stress.
  • Things you can’t modify: Age, family history and race.

Void: What is the overall goal of the American Heart Association?

Rama: The impact goal of the American Heart Association is to reduce heart disease by 20 percent by the year 2020. For them to reach that goal, they need to decrease the risk factors in Northeast Florida. As a board, we look at what the problems were in Northeast Florida, and we know that exercise is one of the things that is lacking, especially among the children. Around 40 percent of the children in Florida don’t get the required 60 minutes of exercise a day. What can we do to change that? Those are the problems that we as an organization are trying to address.

Void: What is the best piece of advice you can offer to someone wanting to be heart healthy?

Rama: My best piece of advice is that to reduce heart disease, you need to start early, you need to know your numbers, and you have to realize that you can reduce your lifetime risk for developing cardiovascular disease by 82 percent by starting heart healthy living early on. You don’t wait until your in your 40s or 50s; you start when you’re in your 20s. Eat healthy, start exercising and stop smoking!