Heart disease continues to be the No. 1 killer in America — that’s a staggering 1 in 4 deaths annually.

It’s the restriction of blood flow to the heart that causes the all-too-common cardiovascular diseases like heart attack and stroke. However prevalent, it’s never too late to act before the evident symptoms of heart disease like chest pain arrive, local cardiologists say.

“Heart disease is a gradual illness,” said Dr. Rodney Brown of Waco Cardiology Associates. Brown has 23 years of experience and over the years, he’s observed the signs of declining heart health to be slow and subtle.

“If one day you’re walking your normal two-mile route and at one mile you’re short of breath, it may be a good sign you should see someone about your heart,” Brown said.

According to Dr. Phillip Myatt, a specialist in interventional cardiology at Waco Heart & Vascular, the best thing to do is know your own functional status, meaning the amount of activity you are usually able to do.

“There’s no cookie-cutter way to recognize poor heart health,” Myatt said.

Pay attention to abnormal feelings such as an irregular heartbeat, lack of stamina, shortness of breath, or lack of exercise capacity, Brown said.

Even if you aren’t experiencing symptoms, it doesn’t hurt to be examined.

“Just because you don’t have symptoms doesn’t mean you have a healthy heart,” Brown said.

One common misconception about cardiovascular health is that it can’t be corrected, they said. In fact, you can take steps to get your heart healthy again.

Heart Healthy

• First off, quit smoking, the doctors said. Smoking raises fat levels in the blood, making clots more likely, and causes a buildup of plaque, which can narrow and restrict the blood vessels.

• “Get moving,” Brown added. “People who are active live 2-3 years longer.”

Both experts agreed that pushing yourself to do more activities will help maintain your heart. Brown suggested 45 minutes of walking daily. “The key is not to go by distance but the length of time,” he said.

Ask yourself: what exercise will allow you to reach a threshold of a higher heart rate? “You want to keep your heart up and keep it sustained for a period of time,” Myatt said.

As people get older, the threshold to get to an elevated heart rate decreases. A patient who walks for longer periods in their 50s may transition to 10- to 20-minute intervals several times a week during their 60s.

• Eat in moderation, both agreed.

Myatt suggested skipping red meat and eating more fish and poultry. Changing your habits doesn’t have to mean the death of your favorite foods or that you have to insert “healthy” before each recipe you search online.

“I like to suggest a Mediterranean diet,” Brown said. Use olive oil and herbs to grill a filet of fish once a week, heap on the fruits and vegetables, and enjoy a glass of red wine.

New York Times best-selling author Yotam Ottolenghi’s “Ottolenghi: The Cookbook” – a culinary excursion through the Mediterranean – is an excellent place to start.

• Meeting with a physician about your health can help.

“Sometimes a patient has a genetic predisposition to obesity, diabetes, alcoholism, or heart disease,” Myatt said. “In this situation, it’s best to work with a doctor on maintaining a healthy metabolism and good cholesterol.”

Patients can visit with physicians at Waco Heart & Vascular and Waco Cardiology Associates.

“You can improve your heart health,” Brown said. “Know your blood pressure and cholesterol numbers, improve your habits, and you can correct it.”