Blood runs through every service member defending the country, every civilian supporting their mission and every family member and friend who loves them. Having a medically ready force for the Department of Defense means paying attention to the organ that pumps the blood: the heart.

This is American Heart Month, which gives the Military Health System the chance to look at the heart and how to take care of it. Heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death among men and women in the United States, so good heart habits are key to quality of life.

“A healthy heart is important for military readiness and peak performance,” Patricia Deuster, Ph.D., director of the Consortium for Health & Military Performance at the Uniformed Services University for Health Sciences, said.

DoD’s Total Force Fitness framework supports heart health through focus on eight fitness domains. Habits in physical, medical, nutritional and even financial fitness can affect the heart.

Obesity, diabetes, smoking and high blood pressure are common concerns for the military. They are also among the risk factors for heart disease. Service members and their families are advised to look at their current lifestyle and use the Total Force Fitness framework to build healthy habits.

“Certain things you can’t change, like your age, sex or family history,” Deuster said. “But many risk factors can be changed, so paying attention to them can improve your chances of keeping your heart healthy.”

Older people are more likely to have heart attacks and blocked arteries. However, Deuster says that many habits people have as children and young adults can affect heart health as they get older.

“Children will mimic adults either by example or out of necessity,” Deuster said. “Adults, parents and leaders need to set the example for children, young adults and service members.”

Focus on Total Force Fitness can show how diet, exercise and managing stress affect heart health. People who already have heart disease are more likely to develop other health problems. Deuster suggests starting healthy habits early.

“The sooner in life you do so, the sooner you will be investing in your future heart health,” she said.

Stay tuned through the month to see how the MHS is addressing heart health and tips to keep the body’s strongest organ healthy.