Heart health checkup: An expert explains what the numbers mean

Understanding your blood pressure reading is one step toward understanding your risk of heart disease. — Picture courtesy of stockvisual / Istock.com
Understanding your blood pressure reading is one step toward understanding your risk of heart disease. — Picture courtesy of stockvisual / Istock.com

NEW YORK, Feb 22 — We all know that a healthy diet, regular exercise, and not smoking are good for a healthy heart. However, other risk factors can be harder to understand.

With February marking American Heart Month now is a good time to book an appointment with your doctor for a checkup to measure levels of cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood pressure, but what do the numbers for these indicators mean and how can they affect your risk of heart disease?

Here Dr Christie Ballantyne, professor of medicine and chief of the section of cardiology at Baylor College of Medicine, USA, gives her guide to understanding the basics and how they can impact your heart health.

Cholesterol

Cholesterol is both absorbed from the diet and naturally occurring in the body. It is important for proper cell and hormone function, although it can be bad for the heart. Cholesterol is carried through the blood stream by lipoproteins called low-density lipoprotein (also known as LDL, or “bad” cholesterol) and high-density lipoprotein (also known as HDL, or “good” cholesterol).

LDL cholesterol is known as the “bad” cholesterol because it is causes clogged arteries, which increases the risk of cardiovascular disease. To reduce this risk, optimal LDL cholesterol levels are less than 100 mg/dL. 

HDL cholesterol is the “good” cholesterol because people with higher levels of this type of cholesterol have less heart disease. Optimal levels are considered to be 60 mg/dL or higher, whereas a low level of HDL cholesterol (less than 40 mg/dL) is a marker of increased risk for heart disease.

Triglycerides

Triglycerides are a type of fat (also called lipids) found in the blood which transport and store energy. 

A level of less than 150 mg/dL is considered healthy, and more than 200 mg/dL is high.

Overall, healthy total cholesterol levels, which includes LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol and triglycerides, are less than 200 mg/dL.

Blood pressure

When blood pressure is measured, there are two numbers which show how blood is flowing to and from the heart. 

The systolic reading (the number at the top of the ratio) measures the pressure in your blood vessels when your heart beats. 

The diastolic reading (the number at the bottom of the ratio) measures the pressure in your blood vessels when your heart relaxes between beats.

A healthy blood pressure reading is generally 120/80 mmHg. High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is usually defined as blood pressure over 140/90 mmHg.

Being at risk of hypertension, known as prehypertension, is defined as a systolic blood pressure of 120-139 mmHg and diastolic blood pressure of 80-90 mmHg.

What to do next?

Dr Ballantyne says that knowing what your measurements are is a good place to start to understand your individual risk of heart disease, but your doctor will be able to advise you best on what to do next, for example the appropriate lifestyle changes to make or the right treatment for you.

She also advises seeing a doctor regularly as there are many factors involved in an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. — AFP-Relaxnews

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