February is American Heart Month — the perfect time to check in with our heart health, as paper hearts and heart-shaped candy serve as constant reminders to be proactive. Heart disease is the no. 1 killer of adults in the U.S. (both men and women), but you can make this year the year you get serious about fighting it.
Even though cardiovascular disease and stroke are the most deadly diseases in the U.S., about 80 percent of cardiac events are preventable. If you’re a woman ready to focus on making sure you’re doing everything you can to prevent heart disease, American Heart Association’s “Go Red for Women” initiative is a perfect place to get started. It’s not just a call to wear red. It’s a commitment shared by women to take charge of their own heart health and encourage the ones they love to do the same, starting with knowing their numbers.
At Life Line Screening, we know that knowledge is power. Being informed about your health is a critical first step to avoiding major problems later on. The more aware you are about your body, your family history and your risk factors, the more likely you are to catch issues early or prevent them altogether. Our screenings are a part of that fact-finding process, and so is “knowing your numbers.”
To “know your numbers” simply means to become familiar with four primary health measurements:
Blood pressure measurements are given in the form of two numbers, like this: 120/80 mm Hg.
The top number (systolic blood pressure) indicates the amount of pressure being exerted against your artery walls when your heart beats. The second (diastolic blood pressure) indicates the amount of pressure being exerted against your artery walls in between heartbeats. A “normal” blood pressure measurement is considered less than 120 for systolic (the top number) and less than 80 for diastolic (the bottom number).
Knowing your blood pressure number is important for heart health because high blood pressure can make the artery walls less elastic, which decreases the flow of blood and oxygen to the heart. That decreased blood flow can cause angina (chest pain), heart attack (blood flow to the heart is blocked) or heart failure (your heart can’t pump enough blood and oxygen to your other organs).
If your blood pressure is higher than normal, there are many ways you can work with your doctor to lower it. Lifestyle changes like increased physical activity, quitting smoking, and managing stress make a significant difference, and in some cases your doctor may recommend medication.
Your body needs some cholesterol to build healthy cells, but too much can increase your risk of heart disease. You may have heard before that there are actually two types of cholesterol. Cholesterol is carried around your body by proteins, and the combination of proteins and cholesterol is called lipoproteins.
The “good cholesterol” is the high-density lipoproteins (HDL). Those pick up the excess cholesterol and take it back to your liver. The “bad cholesterol” is the low-density lipoproteins (LDL). Those transport cholesterol around your body and can build up in artery walls.
When cholesterol and other substances build up in the arteries, it forms plaque, which narrows the artery openings and slows blood flow. At times, plaque can break off and form a clot, which can block the blood flow entirely. If blood flow to the heart is blocked, you experience a heart attack. If blood flow to the brain is blocked, you experience a stroke. Both are medical emergencies and could be life-or-death situations.
The only way to know whether you have high cholesterol is to consult your doctor. There are no noticeable symptoms, so a blood test would be required to determine your levels. If your cholesterol number is higher than recommended, your doctor will help you come up with a plan to lower it.
High cholesterol can be a dangerous condition, but the good news is, it is largely preventable. There are a few primary ways your doctor might suggest lowering your total cholesterol levels:
If you have diabetes, you have a much greater risk of developing cardiovascular disease. High blood sugar, particularly when poorly controlled, damages your blood vessels, which can harden arteries and hinder blood flow. Some patients don’t even realize they have type 2 diabetes until they experience a heart attack.
It’s important to note that women under 60, who would otherwise have a generally lower risk of heart disease, increase their risk by four if they have type 2 diabetes, according to recent research from Johns Hopkins. Women in particular should stay vigilant about their blood sugar numbers.
The good news is type 2 diabetes, like these other conditions, is largely preventable and even reversible if caught early. The primary way to prevent and reverse type 2 diabetes is weight management through healthy eating (limiting carbohydrates and sugar intake) and regular exercise.
Your body mass index (BMI) is a measurement that helps determine what is considered a healthy weight for your body. For most people it is an indicator of the amount of body fat they have. (It is important to note that for children and teens, a separate calculator should be used that takes into account age and gender.)
BMI is calculated using your height and weight in relation to each other. You can use a BMI calculator online to determine your number, but to do it manually requires dividing your weight in kilograms by your height in meters squared. As a formula, it looks like kg/m2. According to the National Lung, Heart, and Blood Institute, the metrics for determining whether your BMI is considered healthy are:
If your BMI is higher than the healthy weight range for your height, you may have a level of body fat that is negatively impacting your cardiovascular health by way of your blood pressure, cholesterol or blood sugar. Talking to your doctor about your BMI and making a plan to implement healthy lifestyle choices is the best way to keep your BMI within a healthy range.
If you don’t know all four of your numbers — blood pressure, total cholesterol, blood sugar and BMI — be sure to make an appointment with your doctor today. Being informed about your health is the first step to lowering your risk of developing cardiovascular disease or having a stroke.
Life Line Screening is another great way to familiarize yourself with your health so you can stay vigilant and prevent medical emergencies. We offer quick, painless screenings that provide valuable information that could help save your life, including a cholesterol test and screenings for cardiovascular diseases like carotid artery disease. Learn more about all the screenings we offer on our website.
Let’s use American Heart Month to commit to learning our numbers and fighting heart disease. (And don’t forget to “go red” by wearing your favorite red gear to spread the word!)
American Heart Association – Go Red for Women
Mayo Clinic – “High Cholesterol“
Johns Hopkins Medicine – “Women: How Controlling Blood Sugar Benefits Your Heart”
National Lung, Heart and Blood Institute – “Calculate your Body Mass Index”