Some people may be able to recite a childhood best friend’s phone number. Others may have difficulty remembering their own phone number, but there are some important numbers the American Heart Association (AHA) and most doctors want you to know. These numbers help paint a picture of your heart’s overall health.
The AHA says 4 numbers are important to keep your eyes on. For help understanding what these numbers are, Brian Henry, MD, PHD, a cardiologist in Northern Colorado, explains what the numbers mean and the level they should be at for a healthy heart.
Know your numbers
The 4 numbers the AHA say are critical are your blood pressure, blood sugar, body mass index (BMI) and total cholesterol, which is the combined amounts of LDL and HDL cholesterols. Additionally, Dr. Henry says you should track triglycerides, too. A sixth number, waist circumference, is only necessary when your BMI indicates you are overweight or obese, according to Dr. Henry.
Each number has a target range you should fall into to ensure you’re protecting your heart.
Cholesterol and triglycerides
First is LDL cholesterol, which is low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, a waxy substance found in your cells. Dr. Henry says your LDL levels depend on age and any other comorbidities—other chronic diseases that may be present. However, Dr. Henry says everyone should be less than 100 mg/dL, and if you have cardiovascular disease, your LDL levels should be less than 70 mg/dL. Dr. Henry believe patients who have cardiovascular disease should have LDL levels below 50 mg/dL.
“LDL can be reduced to even lower levels without evidence of harm,” Dr. Henry said. “These lower levels are associated with a decreased risk of CV disease.”
HDL, which is high-density lipoprotein and sometimes called the good cholesterol, differs from LDL because a higher level is associated with less cardiovascular disease. A low HDL level would predict an increased risk of cardiovascular problems, according to Dr. Henry. He says women should have HDL levels over 50 mg/dL, and men should have greater than 40 mg/dL.
Finally, triglycerides are a type of fat found in your blood–created when your body has calories it doesn’t need to use right away. These triglycerides are stored in fat cells and are released for energy between meals.
Dr. Henry says that less than 150 mg/dL puts you in the normal range. Between 150 and 499 puts you in the mildly elevated triglyceride range. Any levels above 500 mg/dL would be considered significant and should receive treatment.
All three of these are measured with a blood sample. The first measurement of HDL, LDL and triglycerides should occur between 17 and 21 years of age.
If the initial screening is normal, high-risk men will be tested again between the ages of 25 and 30. High-risk women will be tested again between 30 and 35 years old. Low-risk men are tested again at 35 and low-risk women at 45. Follow up screenings for low-risk patients are every 5 years, and high-risk patients are tested every 3 years.
Body mass index is a measurement of your weight relative to your height. A higher number means you carry more weight and could be putting a strain on your heart.
Dr. Henry says the ideal BMI would fall between 20 and 25. However, he says people with a muscular physique could have a high BMI, and in this case, a waist measurement would help determine increased risk of heart disease and other conditions. If a waist measurement is taken, men with a circumference of more than 40 inches and women with more than 35 inches would be at greater risk.
To measure your BMI, your doctor will take your weight in kilograms and height in meters and do a little math. No blood sample is needed. There are even calculators online, so you can determine this yourself.
If you aren’t totally familiar with blood pressure, let’s go over the basics quickly. It is the pressure your blood puts on the walls of your blood vessels as it circulates through the body.
You’ll see it recorded as 1 number over another, such as 123/76. The top number is the systolic pressure–the pressure during the heart’s beat. The bottom number is the diastolic pressure—the pressure between beats.
Dr. Henry says a resting blood pressure of 140/90 mmHg is too high, and people with any cardiovascular disease should aim to have a blood pressure below 125-130/80.
To measure blood pressure, the doctor or nurse will put a cuff on your arm, pump it up and listen with a stethoscope. You should have your blood pressure checked every year starting at age 18, if you remain healthy. If you have other risk factors or your systolic pressure is between 120 and 129, you should be checked every 6 months.
This is a measurement of the amount of sugar your blood carries with it to supply cells with energy. It’s an important number because too high of a number could indicate type 2 diabetes.
Dr. Henry notes that, when you are fasting, the normal range is below 100 mg/dL. Between 100-125 mg/dL, you are considered in a stage of pre-diabetes. Above 125 mg/dL, would indicate type 2 diabetes.
Blood glucose levels are taken with a blood sample after a period of fasting. Overweight patients will have their blood glucose checked every 3 years regardless of age. Adults within a normal weight range will be checked every three years, starting at age 45.
It’s important to know your blood glucose levels because type 2 diabetes is often a risk factor for many cardiovascular diseases, including coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure, peripheral vascular disease and others.
To better understand your risk for diabetes, take our free diabetes risk assessment.
What happens if you don’t control your numbers?
These numbers help you and your doctor track your overall health. If any of them get out of control, they could lead to some potentially serious diseases.
Dr. Henry notes hypertension, obesity and type 2 diabetes are the three most common conditions that could develop with untracked numbers. These three conditions lead to an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, cancer and death.
“There are hundreds of other diseases caused by hypertension, obesity and diabetes, and they involve every organ system in the body,” Dr. Henry said. “The vast majority of all chronic diseases can be traced back to these 3 preventable conditions.”
If you can prevent developing hypertension, obesity or diabetes, Dr. Henry believes you can prevent or significantly delay getting other serious diseases.
What can you do to keep your numbers in the good range?
If you’re familiar with other posts on this blog, you’ll know that staying healthy relies on a few lifestyle fixes. Dr. Henry notes that you should:
- Eat a healthy diet that consists of a plenty fruits and vegetables and lean meats, such as fish or chicken.
- Avoid saturated fats from red meats, processed pork and processed foods – remember, unsaturated fats, such as olive oil, are much better for you.
- Avoid processed carbohydrates.
- Exercise or remain active throughout the day.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Don’t smoke, use drugs or drink excessive alcohol. Dr. Henry recommends no more than 7 drinks per week.
If you’re ready to get your numbers in line, visit your doctor today to have them checked. Don’t have a doctor? Find one at bannerhealth.com.