One in every four deaths in the U.S. is due to heart disease. So, knowing your heart health numbers is key to reducing your risk of heart attack or stroke. “There are many factors that contribute to heart health, so it’s important to understand what things may be putting you at greatest risk for heart disease,” says Dr. Kimberly Parks, a cardiologist and the medical director for Atrium Private Health.
Blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol levels, and body mass index are all vital clues for gauging your heart health. The more you understand them, the more you can take initiative to keep yourself healthy. Our experts break down four critical heart health terms and explain why knowing your numbers is so important.
“Looking at physiologic numbers alone, blood pressure is the biggest factor in determining your risk for developing heart disease,” says Parks. “Additional factors include high cholesterol, cigarette smoking, and diabetes (high blood sugar levels), as well as your genetic risk.” When your blood pressure is higher, your heart essentially has to work harder to pump blood, which can cause stress over time and put you at risk for heart attack or stroke.
Systolic and Diastolic
Your blood pressure is recorded as two numbers, says Dr. David Greuner, head doctor and co-founder of NYC Surgical Associates. The upper number represents your systolic blood pressure. This is the amount of pressure your blood exerts with every heartbeat. The bottom number is called your diastolic blood pressure. This is how much pressure your blood exerts while your heart rests in between beats.
According to both experts, ideally, your blood pressure should stay under 120/80 mmHg (millimeters of mercury). Anything above 120/80 mmHg is considered elevated, and once you hit 130/80 mmHg, your blood pressure is labeled “high.” From there, high blood pressure falls into a few categories:
- Stage 1 hypertension (130-139/80-89 mmHg)
- Stage 2 hypertension (140/90 mmHg or higher)
- Hypertensive crisis (any numbers higher than 180/120 mmHg). If your blood pressure is at or near this level, consult your doctor immediately, as you may need medical attention.
How to Get Your Number Down
Aaptiv trainer Jennifer Giamo says running can be a good way to reduce your blood pressure. If your numbers are already high, though, check in with a healthcare provider before getting started. “Although your blood pressure rises during physical activity, it returns to normal shortly after exercise,” she states. “The more consistently you run, the more likely you are to reduce your blood pressure in general.”
That said, if your blood pressure numbers fall within a healthy range, that doesn’t necessarily indicate zero risk of heart attack. There are many factors that determine such risk, says Dr. Parks. For example, you could have completely “normal” blood pressure but still experience a blockage in one of the arteries to your heart. That’s why knowing your levels, and getting them checked every time you go to the doctor, matters.
In addition to blood pressure, knowing your blood sugar numbers—the amount of sugar or glucose in your blood—helps identify your risk of diabetes. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, individuals with diabetes tend to develop heart disease at younger ages than people without diabetes. In addition, high blood sugar can damage the blood vessels and nerves that control your heart in general.
Of course, anyone with diabetes already knows to pay close attention to blood sugar levels. If you aren’t sure where you stand, there are two tests that can check for the condition: fasting glucose and HbA1c (glycosylated hemoglobin). The former looks at your blood sugar after you haven’t eaten for eight hours. The latter notes your blood sugar levels over the past two to three months. Normal ranges are 70-100 mg/DL (milligrams per decilitre) for fasting glucose, and below 6 percent for HbA1c. Ask your doctor about testing your blood sugar levels to make sure your numbers are falling within the normal range.
How to Get Your Number Down
To lower your risk of diabetes, and keep your blood sugar levels in control, the American Diabetes Association suggests regular physical activity, staying at a healthy weight, and not smoking.
Cholesterol: total, LDL, HDL, and triglycerides
When you look at blood test results, you may see several different numbers related to cholesterol. You should see your “total” cholesterol, LDL (low-density lipoprotein), HDL (high-density lipoprotein), and triglycerides. Cholesterol is a waxy substance that comes from your body and the food you eat. Each of the related numbers above represents a different way to measure it. The higher your cholesterol in any of these categories, the higher your risk of coronary heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.
Here’s a quick explanation of these components, per the Cleveland Clinic:
- Total: this is a composite of your LDL, HDL and a percentage of your triglycerides. It showcases a broad picture of your cholesterol levels.
- LDL: Known as “bad” cholesterol, this can create blockages in your blood vessels over time and increase your risk of heart disease. Aim to keep it around 100 mg/dL.
- HDL: This is the so-called “good” kind of cholesterol because it reduces plaque in your arteries and fights against bad cholesterol. This number should remain above 60 mg/dL.
- Triglycerides: This is a chemical form of fat with different types carried through your liver and dietary fat found in what you eat. A number higher than 150 mg/dL will contribute to plaque build-up in your arteries.
How to Get Your Number Down
Similar to how it impacts blood pressure, running can make a positive impact on cholesterol, says Giamo. “Running helps improve cholesterol by raising the good cholesterol (HDL) in your body,” she explains. “By helping to rid the body of fatty deposits, running can also lower triglyceride levels. Overall, running can aid in weight loss, which contributes to both lowered blood pressure and cholesterol levels.”
Body mass index (BMI)
Your body mass index, or BMI, is calculated based on your body fat in relation to height and weight. Keeping it within a healthy range can help lower your risk of heart disease. If you’re overweight, extra pounds put additional stress on your heart and increase both blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
“A healthy BMI range is 18.5-24.9, 25-29.9 is overweight, and anything over 30 is considered obese,” explains Giamo. “Your BMI will decrease as you lose weight. However, just because you have a high BMI, doesn’t always mean you aren’t also fit. BMI is not the same as body composition. You can have a low body fat percentage but still be perceived as overweight if your BMI is outside of the ‘ideal’ range.”
Take it one step further by measuring your waist circumference in addition to your BMI. If your waist size is equal to or more than 35 inches in women and equal to or more than 40 inches in men, you’re at an increased risk of developing diabetes and heart disease.
“Understanding your numbers is the best way to control your numbers,” advises Dr. Greuner. “Whether that means doing your own research or asking your doctor questions, make sure you really do understand. Sometimes people hear things at the doctor’s’ office and then head home and do not know what they meant or what to do now. Be an informed patient and stay on top of your health. You can come up with a great plan with your doctor if your numbers are off.”