All those numbers your doctors and nurses throw around during check-ups can seem like a foreign language, but they’re actually a really useful tool in managing your heart health and preventing heart disease. These health metrics give you feedback on how well your heart-healthy lifestyle changes are paying off—or possibly if they need to be adjusted.
So, take those numbers on your charts and own them. “Doctors love it when patients come in and they know their numbers,” says Michelle Weisfelner Bloom, MD, cardiologist at Stony Brook University Medical Center. You can probably recall your weight on command, but when it comes to heart health, there are a few more numbers doctors recommend you keep track of.
1. Know your cholesterol.
Having your cholesterol tested is critical because high cholesterol, or hyperlipidemia, doesn’t really have symptoms until it progresses and potentially leads to a heart attack or stroke. (Here’s more information on what high cholesterol does to your body.) All adults over age 20 should have a cholesterol test every four to six years, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).
“When we’re talking about a cholesterol profile or a lipid panel, there are several different measurements that are important,” says Paul Knoepflmacher, MD, clinical instructor in medicine at The Mount Sinai Hospital. These are the numbers included in a cholesterol profile to be aware of.
Total cholesterol: This number should be less than 200 for people with an average risk level.
LDL cholesterol: This is the “bad” cholesterol that can cause plaque buildup on the arteries. It should be less than 130 for people with an average risk level, or less than 100 for patients with diabetes.
HDL cholesterol: This is known as the “good” cholesterol, and it should be 60 or greater (or “as high as possible,” says Dr. Knoepflmacher).
Triglycerides: This is a measurement of fat in the blood, and a healthy number is less than 150 in a fasting state.
2. Know your body mass index.
Knowing your weight is one thing, but your body mass index, or BMI, looks at your weight in relation to your height and can give you a more accurate picture.
“If your body mass index is in the obese range or the overweight range, we know that that increases your risk of cardiovascular complications,” says Dr. Weisfelner Bloom. A healthy BMI is also associated with reduced joint pain, more energy, better sleep quality, and a lower risk of some cancers, according to AHA.
18.4 and below is considered underweight.
18.5 to 24.9 is considered a healthy BMI.
25 to 29.9 is considered overweight.
30 and greater is considered obese.
3. Know your blood pressure.
“Blood pressure is simply a physical measurement of the tension, or the pressure, of the blood in the arteries,” says Dr. Knoepflmacher. There are two numbers shown in a BP reading: The top number (the systolic BP) measures pressure when the heart contracts, and the bottom number (the diastolic BP) measures pressure when the heart relaxes.
High blood pressure, or hypertension, does not always have symptoms, but it increases your risk of heart disease, heart attack, stroke, kidney disease, and more, according to AHA. Here are all the ways high blood pressure affects the body.
Your blood pressure reading will likely fall into one of these categories, according to Dr. Knoepflmacher.
Normal blood pressure is less than 120 (systolic) over less than 80 (diastolic).
Elevated blood pressure is between 120 and 129 (systolic) over less than 80 (diastolic).
Hypertension stage 1 is between 130 and 139 (systolic) over 80 to 89 (diastolic).
Hypertension stage 2 is 140 or greater (systolic) over 90 or greater (diastolic).
4. Know your blood sugar.
If a patient already has heart disease, doctors will likely want to keep tabs on their blood sugar levels as well. “We will be regularly checking their blood sugar and maybe even their hemoglobin A1C so that we know whether they have developed diabetes,” says Dr. Weisfelner Bloom. “That’s an additional risk factor that we would definitely want to know about.”
Your blood sugar numbers can be measured in a couple different ways.
Fasting blood sugar: This number represents how much glucose is in the blood during a fasting state. A healthy fasting blood sugar should be less than 100. A fasting blood sugar between 100 and 125 indicates you have prediabetes, and above 125 indicates diabetes.
Hemoglobin A1C: An A1C test is the average blood glucose level over the past three months, so it’s a good indicator of your overall glucose control. A healthy A1C level is between 4 and 5.6 percent. An A1C score between 5.7 and 6.4 percent indicates prediabetes, and a score of 6.5 percent or higher indicates diabetes. Here’s more information of how the A1C test helps manage diabetes.
“You want to know you numbers because you want to know where you stand,” says Satjit Bhusri, MD, a cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital. “But don’t be afraid of your numbers. We’re not targeting each number; we’re targeting you, the patient.” Your specific situation, heart disease risk factors, and history will play into your numbers and impact treatment options.
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Diagnosing diabetes and learning about prediabetes. Arlington, VA: American Diabetes Association. (Accessed on February 15, 2021 at http://www.diabetes.org/diabetes-basics/diagnosis/.)
Health threats from high blood pressure. Dallas, TX: American Heart Association. (Accessed on February 15, 2021 at http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/HighBloodPressure/LearnHowHBPHarmsYourHealth/Health-Threats-From-High-Blood-Pressure_UCM_002051_Article.jsp#.WtdLFpM-fVo.)
HDL (good), LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglycerides. Dallas, TX: American Heart Association. (Accessed on February 15, 2021 at http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/Cholesterol/HDLLDLTriglycerides/HDL-Good-LDL-Bad-Cholesterol-and-Triglycerides_UCM_305561_Article.jsp#.WtdH85M-fVo.)
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Why high blood pressure is a “silent killer.” Dallas, TX: American Heart Association. (Accessed on February 15, 2021 at http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/HighBloodPressure/UnderstandSymptomsRisks/Why-High-Blood-Pressure-is-a-Silent-Killer_UCM_002053_Article.jsp#.WtdK-pM-fVo.)