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Plaque attack

A few years ago, the only plaque you worried about was the kind on your teeth. But for millions of Americans, a far more dangerous type of plaque lurks on the walls of the arteries that deliver blood to the heart. The plaque, which is made up of fat, cholesterol and other substances, builds up (a condition called atherosclerosis) and restricts blood flow, leading to chest pain, shortness of breath and other problems. Even worse, small bits of plaque can break off and travel through the bloodstream, blocking blood flow and causing a heart attack or stroke.

This deadly process may begin as early as childhood, getting worse as we age. It usually leads to coronary heart disease, the leading cause of death in this country. The good news: You can prevent this far-too-common condition by taking the following heart-smart steps:

Aim low. When it comes to your diet, seek out low-fat, low-cholesterol and low-salt foods. That means fresh fruit, vegetables, whole grains and low-or nonfat milk, yogurt, cheese and other dairy products. You also want to keep your blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels low with diet, medication or both.

Go fish. Adding more fish to your diet can help prevent plaque buildup. Try to eat at least two servings a week of baked—not fried—salmon, tuna or mackerel. Don’t like fish? Pop a fish oil supplement.

Run—or walk, bike or hike—for the hills. Choose any type of heart-pumping exercise that you enjoy and will do for at least 30 minutes a day, and do it.

Drop pounds. Bump up your exercise to 60 to 90 minutes a day and stick to that healthy diet to lose excess weight and reduce your risk of atherosclerosis.

Quit smoking. This unhealthy habit raises your risk of atherosclerosis and many other heart and lung conditions. The sooner you quit, the better.

Raise a glass or two—no more. Drinking a reasonable amount of alcohol (up to one drink a day for women; two for men) may reduce the risk, but overdoing it can raise the risk. If you don’t drink alcohol, don’t start now, but keep these guidelines in mind if you do.

Ask about aspirin. For some people, taking daily aspirin can reduce the risk of heart attack or stroke. Ask your healthcare provider if you would benefit from a daily dose.