Jul 28, 2014

Become Heart Smart by Knowing Your Numbers

By understanding your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels, you can easily take an important step toward improving your heart health.

Become Heart Smart by Knowing Your Numbers


Cardiovascular disease is any disease of the heart and/or blood vessels. We have all heard of cardiovascular disease, but what many don’t know is just how prevalent it is. In fact, every minute someone dies of a heart attack. Every 45 seconds, someone has a stroke and 2/3 of women who die suddenly of CHD have no previous symptoms of this disease. Because heart disease can often go undetected, prevention is the key. 

The science behind prevention and significantly reducing heart disease risk has been established. It just takes some understanding and a perhaps a little tweaking of important lifestyle choices to become “heart smart” and the key is to know your “numbers." If you have not had a recent checkup (within one year) with your primary care physician, I strongly advise you to make an appointment today. 

A lot of things can change in the span of a year so before you read on, please make sure that your numbers are current and a reflection of your current lifestyle.

Blood Pressure

High blood pressure is a significant public health problem. In fact, over 62 percent of U.S. adults have high blood pressure.  Please be sure to always write your numbers down. Do not be content with someone telling you that it is “fine” or “a little high.” Always ask what it is exactly.

When your blood pressure is reported to you it should be two numbers—one over the other. What do those numbers mean? The top number is called systolic blood pressure or SBP. When the cuff is inflated on your arm, it increases pressure so that your circulation is cut off temporarily. When the cuff is released slowly, the first sound or beat that is heard is your SBP. This number represents the pressure exerted on your blood vessel walls when your heart is beating. 

A few seconds later when the blood flow is restored in the vessel and a beat can no longer be detected, the bottom number or the diastolic blood pressure will be noted.  Your DBP is a reflection of the pressure exerted on your blood vessel walls in between beats, at rest. Naturally, you can expect this number to be much lower.

So where should you be? The Joint National Commission on the Prevention, Detection, Evaluation, and Treatment of High Blood Pressure states that anything over 120 and/or 80 mmHg is elevated.  So in short, where you want to be is either 120/80 mmHg or below. (Lower is better unless you feel symptomatic, for example, dizzy or lightheaded in the heat or when standing for too long, frequent fainting, etc). 

The good news is that blood pressure is extremely responsive to physical activity. The even better news is that the more you do, the more results you get! Immediately following one short bout of aerobic exercise your blood pressure can lower as much as 5-7mmHg, so imagine the benefits of chronic, everyday exercise.* 


High cholesterol is one of the major risk factors leading to heart disease, heart attack and stroke. It is also extremely responsive to both diet and physical activity changes, and easy to test. When your cholesterol is reported there will be a few numbers to remember. 

Total Cholesterol: Your Total Cholesterol is the sum total of cholesterol in your blood. This value should be under 200 mg/dl. 

Triglycerides: Your triglycerides are a direct reflection of the amount of fat in your blood. This value should be under 150 mg/dl.

HDL and LDL:  These two values are extremely important to remember because they tell two very different stories. HDL is your good cholesterol. This number you actually would like to be higher than lower. Any value over 60 mg/dl is good. Physical activity can have great effects of this value. LDL is your bad cholesterol. The lower your LDL cholesterol, the lower your risk of heart attack and stroke. In fact, most physicians would say that it is a better indicator of risk than total blood cholesterol.

A fun way to remember the difference between the two is HDL you would like to have and LDL you would like to leave.

Cholesterol Ratio: Some physicians use the ratio of total cholesterol to HDL cholesterol. The ratio is simply total cholesterol/HDL. For example, if your total cholesterol number is 200 and your good cholesterol is 50, your total cholesterol ratio is 4:1.The goal is to keep the ratio below 5:1 and the idea ratio is 3.5:1.

Blood Sugar or Glucose

More than 80 percent of people with diabetes die of cardiovascular disease. A blood glucose test measures the amount of a type of sugar, called glucose, in your blood and can help determine if pre-diabetes or diabetes is present. If you are having your cholesterol checked and you have not eaten (fasting) for at least 8 hours it is wise to have your physician also perform a fasting blood sugar, too.

Fasting Glucose: This value should be 70 to 120 mg/dl.  Anything higher could be indicative of uncontrolled blood sugar.

Hemoglobin A1c: This value gives your physician a better look at what is going on with your blood sugar. While fasting glucose can measure your blood sugars at one point in time, your Hemoglobin A1c measures the sugar “stuck” to your red blood cells, which live up to 3 months. As a result, this value provides a 3 month snapshot of your blood sugars. The normal range is 4-5.9 percent. In poorly controlled diabetes, it's 8.0 percent. or above, and in well controlled patients it's less than 7.0 percent.

Please be advised that these values reported are standard values and your treatment plan should always be discussed with your physician first.  Other factors such as a strong family history or a previous event can warrant your physician to be even more aggressive with prevention. 

In that case, he/she might like to see your numbers lower than the recommended value. It is suggested that (at minimum) you visit your physician once a year. As quickly as diet and physical activity can improve your profile, it is also far too common for life to get in the way and adversely affect your numbers!

*If you have elevated blood pressure, consider volunteering for a new study being conducted at Hartford Hospital! The researchers are comparing the influence of two types of exercise on blood pressure in adults with high blood pressure. Upon completion of the study you will be paid $150 to compensate you for time and mileage. If you are interested please call Garrett Ash at the University of Connecticut at (860) 486-8976 or email garrett.ash@uconn.edu.

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