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updated 3/7/2007 7:16:40 PM ET 2007-03-08T00:16:40

Sure, many of us can't resist glazed doughnuts and french fries and don't remember what the inside of a gym looks like. And yes, we're constantly stressed out about work and could stand to lose 10 pounds.

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But a heart attack? They happen to other people — not you.

Even if the worst should occur, doctors can use drugs to decrease the damage to your heart, or perform angioplasty or bypass surgery to fix the problem. Right?

Not always. Up to 25 percent of people who die of sudden cardiac death had no prior symptoms or warnings such as chest pain.

"You can't just rely on the thought that, 'Oh, well, if I have a heart attack the doctors will be there to save me and put me on medications,'" says Dr. Erin Michos, a cardiology fellow at Johns Hopkins Medicine. "Some people don't make it to the hospital. They die at home. Prevention needs to begin early in life."

Heart attacks strike when one or more of the heart's arteries are blocked, severely reducing or stopping blood from reaching part of the heart muscle. They're usually preceded by the buildup inside the artery walls of fatty deposits or plaque, which can rupture, causing a blood clot to form and block the artery. When the blood supply is cut off for more than a few minutes it can be deadly.

Coronary heart disease remains the nation's single leading cause of death, and it's estimated that 1.2 million Americans will have a first or recurrent coronary attack this year, killing 452,000 of them, according to the American Heart Association.

Preventative measures
If those statistics sound frightening, take heart.

Cardiologists, doctors, nutritionists and other experts say you have the power to cut your risk of having a heart attack.

Instead of looking for the latest quick fix, however, focus your preventive efforts on what's already been proven.

For starters, that means changing your diet. But, as registered dietitian and American Heart Association spokeswoman Ronni Litz Julien points out, today there are lots more do's than don'ts.

She tells clients to get a tablespoon of olive oil a day, either with sautéed vegetables or a salad, and to frequently eat low-mercury fish, which is high in omega-3 fatty acids and can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

A few eggs a week are no longer forbidden. Neither is meat, if you're eating lean, 4-ounce to 6-ounce cuts. The same goes for nuts, such as walnuts, almonds, cashews and peanuts, as long as you're not demolishing a Costco-size container in two days.

A little portion control will go a long way toward helping you keep your weight in check too. Litz Julien recommends that couples eating out order separate salads or shrimp cocktails and split an entrée. When cooking, don't just dump half a bag of rice into the pot — measure it. Aim to always leave something on the plate.

"If you can leave a few bites, you've created a barrier between you and the food," she says. "You're still satiated but you're not so completely full that you have to unbutton your pants."

Consistently getting a good night's rest is another simple thing you can do for your heart.

Recent studies have shown a connection between not getting enough sleep or irregular sleep patterns and heart disease, says cardiologist Dr. Thomas Lee, editor of the Harvard Health Letter, a journal which covers and analyzes health care issues. By cheating yourself of sleep, you're throwing off your biological clock, causing adrenaline to surge and raising blood pressure, a major risk factor for heart attacks.

"We need to recognize that sleep is important, not a sign of weakness," Lee says. He suggests structuring your day so that you get enough sleep, which also can minimize stress in your life, another risk factor.

Down with your digits
An additional key to heart attack prevention is knowing your numbers, including blood pressure, cholesterol and body mass index.

Risk factors such as age (coronary heart disease increases as we grow older), gender (before 50 heart disease is more common in men than women, but women's risk increases after menopause) and heredity (you're at an increased risk if your father or a brother had a heart attack before 55 or your mom or a sister had a heart attack before 65) can't be changed, according to research from Johns Hopkins Medicine.

But once you know your numbers, you can do something about them.

High-tech help
The Texas-based U.S. Preventive Medicine is one new company trying to encourage preventive screenings across America.

It's working with hospitals and physician groups to create centers where people can go for tests, health risk assessments, counseling and intervention, says medical director Dr. Boyd Lyles. On a daily basis Web sites, such as Everydayhealth.com, also can help you track your results and goals, and show you how to reach them.

Following through will take time and commitment, but it can be done.

Over the years, Litz Julien, for instance, has made exercise as an important part of the day as her shower.

"It's truly a matter of if you want it," she says. "You've got to want it."

© 2012 Forbes.com

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