If you want to know how healthy your heart is, do the math. No, we’re not talking about algebra — we’re talking about your heart health numbers. From your blood pressure to your waist size, there are several numbers that are important for your overall heart health. And when combined with other important information, like your age and your family history, they can tell your doctor a lot about your risk for heart disease. Here’s a list of the numbers that matter most and how they relate to your overall heart health.
Ideally, your total cholesterol should be under 200 mg/dL. However, your total cholesterol matters less than you might think. Why? Since not all cholesterol is bad, your specific blood lipid breakdown is a lot more telling than your total cholesterol. Your blood lipid profile is composed of three things: your LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol and triglycerides. A fasting lipid panel evaluates all three. According to the American Heart Association, people who are healthy and have no other risk factors for heart disease should have a full lipid profile done at least every five years. However, if you’re in a higher risk group, your doctor will probably want to run a lipid profile more frequently.
This stands for low-density lipoprotein, and is often referred to as the “bad cholesterol.” The lower your LDL cholesterol, the better. Ideally, it should be 100 mg/dL or lower. But that can vary depending on a number of other factors. For example, if you’re at a very high risk for heart disease, your LDL cholesterol should be less than 70 mg/dL. So while your individual goals will depend on your overall risk profile, here’s a general breakdown:
Less than 100 mg/dL -- Optimal
110 to 129 mg/dL -- Near optimal/above optimal
130 to 159 mg/dL -- Borderline high
160 to 189 mg/dL -- High
190 mg/dL and above -- Very high
High-density lipoprotein, or HDL, is the second part of your lipid profile. This is also known as your “good cholesterol.” It helps to collect cholesterol that’s in your bloodstream, transporting it to your liver so that it can be expelled. And in doing so, it helps reduce your risk for conditions like heart disease and stroke. When it comes to your HDL cholesterol, higher is better. So what’s a good number to shoot for? According to the American Heart Association, men should aim for an HDL of 40 mg/dL or higher, and women should aim for 50 mg/dL or higher.
What can you do to improve your cholesterol? The best way to do this is through diet and exercise. To keep your cholesterol in check, we recommend eating foods rich in fiber and polyunsaturated fatty acids. These include: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, olive oil and fatty fish like salmon. You should also watch your intake of saturated fat and particularly trans fat. And by exercising regularly, you can boost your levels of healthy HDL cholesterol and help keep your unhealthy LDL cholesterol in check.
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C-reactive protein, or CRP, is an acute phase protein found in the blood that tends to increase with systematic inflammation. And it’s also an important marker for heart health. Studies have demonstrated that the higher the levels of highly sensitive CRP (hs-CRP) are associated with a greater risk of a heart attack. While most people don’t need to have their CRP levels checked, your doctor may recommend it if you’re in a high-risk group. Here’s what the different hs-CRP levels mean:
1.0 mg/L -- Low risk
1.0 mg/L to 3.0 mg/L -- Average risk
Higher than 3.0 mg/L -- High risk
Since you’re probably a little more familiar with cholesterol than triglycerides, we’ll start with a brief background on what triglycerides are. When you eat more calories than your body can handle, excess triglycerides appear in the blood. Your triglyceride level should be 150 mg/dL or less. If it’s too high, you could be at a greater risk of developing coronary artery disease. The good news is that you can manage your triglyceride level by exercising, watching what you eat, limiting your alcohol intake and not smoking.
The term blood pressure refers to the force of blood pushing against the walls of the blood vessels, and it’s made up of two numbers. The systolic or top number refers to the pressure when your heart beats, while the diastolic or bottom number refers to the pressure when your heart is at rest. Both of these numbers are important to your health, so you should keep an eye on them by having your blood pressure checked at least every two years. If you’re in a higher risk group, your doctor may want to check it more frequently.
High blood pressure, or hypertension, is a very serious condition and can lead to a heart attack, stroke or other major health problem. But what’s particularly troubling about high blood pressure is that it has no symptoms. In other words, you could have it and not even know it. That’s why it’s so important to have your blood pressure checked every year or two. If it’s high, your doctor may recommend things like blood pressure medication and lifestyle changes to keep it in check. Here’s a breakdown on blood pressure numbers and how they stack up:
Less than 120/80 mm Hg -- Normal
120/80 mm Hg to 139/89 mm Hg -- Prehypertension
140/90 mm Hg to 159/99 mm Hg -- Stage 1 hypertension
160/100 mm Hg or higher -- Stage 2 hypertension
Body Mass Index
Body mass index, or BMI, is a formula that uses your height-to-weight ratio to measure your body fat. This is yet another one of the tools that can help determine your risk for heart disease. Here’s how it works. Take your weight in pounds and divide it by your height in inches. Then divide that number by your height in inches again and multiply that number by 703. The resulting number is your BMI. Since it’s easy to calculate your BMI on your own, it’s a good idea to check yours every so often. Here’s a breakdown of BMI numbers and what they mean:
Less than 18.5 Kg/m2 -- Underweight
18.5 Kg/m2 to 24.9 Kg/m2 -- Normal
25 Kg/m2 to 29.9 Kg/m2 -- Overweight
30 Kg/m2 or above -- Obese
It should come as no surprise that being overweight is bad for your health. But did you know that carrying excess weight in your abdominal area puts you at an even greater risk for heart disease? It’s true. In fact, according to experts, your waist size is even more critical than your weight or BMI. That’s because a number of studies have shown that having excess fat around the midsection is an important predictor for heart disease. It also increases your risk for diabetes, metabolic problems, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. So what’s considered unhealthy? For women, a waist size of 35 inches or above increases your risk; for men, it’s 40 inches or above. If you fall in that range, consider this your wake-up call. But here’s the good news: with every inch that you trim off of your waistline, you’ll help improve all of your heart health numbers.
Your fasting glucose, also known as your blood sugar, is another important number for heart health. Why? Because in addition to causing diabetes, high blood sugar is an important factor in conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. And since about one-third of diabetics aren’t even aware that they have diabetes, getting your blood sugar tested regularly is key. Just as with a lipid panel, you have to fast before a blood sugar test. So how often should you have your blood sugar checked? It’s often done as part of routine physical exam. But for healthy adults who aren’t at a high risk for diabetes, getting a blood sugar test every three years should be sufficient. Here’s how the numbers add up:
Less than 100 mg/dL -- Optimal
100 mg/dL to 125 mg/dL -- Pre-Diabetic
More than 125 mg/dL -- Diabetic
While we’re on the subject of numbers that play an important role in your heart health, we’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about exercise. So how much exercise is enough? For optimum heart health, you should aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise a day for five or six days each week. And really, who doesn’t have at least 30 minutes a day to exercise? The key is to get your heart rate up, so you’re exercising in your target heart range. To calculate yours, subtract your age from 220. Your target heart range is 55% to 85% of this number.
Keep Your Numbers in Check
Now that you know which numbers matter most for your heart it’s up to you to take control of your cardiovascular health. If you don’t already know your numbers, now is the time to find out. So make your heart health a priority and schedule an appointment with your doctor today.