A Valentine for your Heart: Know your Numbers

February 16, 2011

Vegetables make for an excellent mid-day snack

In February, many of you celebrated Valentine's Day with gifts to loved ones. Knowing shirt size, shoe size, and ring size can come in handy, but there are some other numbers you should also know.

Yes, February is Heart Health Month. And when it comes to heart health, there are some numbers you should know:

  • Blood pressure
  • Cholesterol
  • HDL, the "good cholesterol"s
  • Blood sugar
  • Body mass index (BMI)

Blood Pressure

Blood pressure is a measure of the force at which your blood flows through your blood vessels. Blood pressure is usually told to you using two numbers, 120 over 80 or 118 over 81, for example. The first number is your systolic blood pressure, the pressure on your arteries when your heart beats. It's usually less than 120. Diastolic blood pressure is the pressure on your arteries when your heart muscle relaxes, and is usually less than 80. Your doctor can teach you ways to control your blood pressure, through diet, exercise, weight loss, lifestyle changes and, if needed, medicine.

Cholesterol

Our bodies make cholesterol, also called lipids, for many reasons. But for some, cholesterol is a big problem. Family history and diet can affect your cholesterol for better or worse. When too much cholesterol is in your bloodstream, it can lead to blocked arteries, which can also lead to heart attacks, strokes, and other serious health problems.

How much cholesterol is too much? It depends. Just like blood pressure, cholesterol has two numbers, LDL, which stands for low-density lipoprotein, also called bad cholesterol, and HDL, high-density lipoprotein, or good cholesterol. To be heart healthy, LDL should be low, and HDL should be high. The goal for most people is to keep your LDL below 130. The goal for HDL is to stay at least above 40, and above 60 is even better. Your doctor can help you find ways to lower your HDL and raise your HDL.

Triglycerides

Like cholesterol, triglycerides are a kind of fat in your blood. They are often measured at the same time as your cholesterol. High triglycerides – above 150 mg/dL – can cause problems even if your cholesterol and blood pressure are normal. A triglyceride test can also help doctors find out your risk for diabetes or heart disease. Diet, exercise, and weight control are the best ways to control triglycerides. Your doctor can help you make a plan to control your levels for better health.

Blood Sugar

Your blood sugar, or glucose, usually relates to diabetes. So why is it important for heart health? Having high blood sugar, even if you don't have diabetes, can put you at risk for heart disease. Many people have diabetes and don't even know. That's why watching your blood sugar is so important. A person who hasn't had anything to eat or drink for 12 hours should have blood sugar below 100 mg/dL. Talk your test results over with your doctor to find out what you might be at risk for, and what can be done to keep you healthy.

Body Mass Index

Your BMI is how doctors measure whether you are too thin or heavy for your age, size, and sex. A healthy person's BMI should be between 18.5 and 25. Anything above 25 is considered overweight. A BMI over 30 is considered obese. Ways to measure BMI include waist-to-hip ratio using a measuring tape and body fat percentage, called the pinch test. BMI is the easiest and most recognized way to see if you are at risk of heart disease.

Your doctor can order all these heart healthy tests for you when you go in for an annual checkup. Also, many health fairs measure some or all of these numbers at little or no cost to you. If you get these tests done at a health fair, make sure you take a copy of your numbers with you to your next doctor's appointment.

This Valentine's Day, give your heart a Valentine by getting to know your numbers – and then working with your doctor to make them better.

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