Know Your Numbers, Save Your Heart

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Reduce your risk of heart disease by learning about and monitoring your blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar and BMI. 

By Anu Agarwal, cardiologist, Renown Institute for Heart and Vascular Health

Adults are pretty good at knowing and memorizing numbers — from passwords and PINs to addresses and phone numbers. But what about the numbers that could help save your life?

Heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the U.S., with 633,842 deaths attributed to the disease in 2016, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.  The American Heart Association lists the vital numbers you need to monitor to help prevent heart disease as blood pressure, total cholesterol, blood sugar and body mass index (BMI). With these numbers, your doctor can assess your risk of developing heart issues such as atherosclerosis, which can lead to other serious heart conditions. 

Atherosclerosis is a condition wherein plaque builds up in the arteries — the blood vessels that transport oxygen-rich blood to cells, the heart and other organs. These fatty deposits clog the arteries, inhibiting blood flow and reducing the amount of much-needed oxygen the body receives. These blockages can lead to angina, coronary heart disease, peripheral artery disease and even heart attack or stroke.

 

But knowing your numbers and keeping them in healthy ranges can mitigate your risk of atherosclerosis and other heart conditions. First things first: Make an appointment with your healthcare provider to see how you’re doing.

Learn your numbers and discuss how they may increase your personal risk of heart disease:

Total Cholesterol

Because cholesterol contributes to the buildup of plaque, keeping your numbers in check means keeping your arteries free of blockages. Check LDL (bad) cholesterol and HDL (good) cholesterol. Your body needs low levels of LDL, but not enough good cholesterol in your system can also increase risk. You can maintain healthy numbers by staying physically active and consuming a heart-healthy diet low in cholesterol and sodium. Statins, the class of drugs used to reduce LDL cholesterol, have proven so effective that the U.S. Preventive Service Task Force recommended in November that all adults older than 40 with one or more risk factors consider taking them.

Blood Pressure

High blood pressure places undue strain on your heart and arteries to move blood and oxygen throughout the body. And a heart that’s working too hard can lead to stroke, heart attack and heart failure. High blood pressure cannot be cured, but it can be managed by eating a heart-healthy diet low in alcohol, staying active and maintaining a healthy weight.

Blood sugar

Given that the body converts most of the food we eat into glucose, or blood sugar, for energy, adding sugar to the diet can raise blood sugar to unhealthy levels and damage the heart, increasing risk of cardiovascular disease and obesity. Opt for foods that are low in fat and added sugars and, instead, get your sweets in naturally occurring foods. Let added sugars be a treat and not the norm.

 

Body Mass Index (BMI)

Your BMI is used to determine whether you’re at a healthy weight. If you’re carrying extra pounds, the heart has to work harder, which increases risk of heart disease. Losing those pounds and maintaining a healthy weight reduces the burden on your heart and blood vessels and improves your blood pressure and cholesterol levels. So eat a heart-healthy diet and get active — even if you simply walk for 30 minutes a day.

Because no symptoms indicate that you have poor cholesterol numbers, high blood pressure or high blood sugar levels, getting screened and learning your numbers is vital. Your doctor can determine what healthy levels look like for you individually and work with you to develop a plan for staying in optimum ranges. That plan will include heart-healthy eating, exercise, abstaining from smoking and, in some cases, medication. It’s up to you to stick with that plan between doctor visits. Do it for yourself, but consider making a pact for a more heart-healthy, active life with a buddy. Research shows people stick with exercise plans longer when they have a partner. 

For more information about living heart-healthy lifestyle, visit our Heart Health page at bestmedicinenews.org/heart-health/.

This article also appeared in the Reno Gazette-Journal’s Health Source Aug. 27.

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