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When it comes to monitoring your heart health, interpreting all of the various numbers and levels involved can be overwhelming. There’s blood pressure, blood glucose, body mass index, and then there is cholesterol—both the good and the bad! It may seem that there are so many different indicators that it’s hard to keep track. But once you understand how each test relates to your heart, things make a whole lot more sense. Read below to learn more about the numbers your doctor uses to measure your heart health, and what you can do to keep an eye on them yourself.

Cholesterol Levels
When there is too much bad cholesterol in your blood, it builds up on the walls of your arteries, narrowing them and slowing or blocking blood flow to the heart. Like atherosclerosis, high blood cholesterol is directly related to heart disease, particularly heart attack.

That means that, essentially, the higher your blood cholesterol the higher your chance for developing heart disease. It’s very important to know what your blood cholesterol level is so that you can take the proper steps to lower it if you need to. That’s why it is recommended that you get your cholesterol measured at least once every five years—no matter how old you are.

The blood test that measures your blood cholesterol level is done after a 9- to 12-hour fast. It provides information about your total cholesterol, LDL (bad cholesterol), HDL (good cholesterol) and triglycerides. LDL is called bad cholesterol because it is the main source of cholesterol buildup and blockage in the arteries. HDL is called good cholesterol because it helps to keep bad cholesterol from building up in the arteries. In fact, HDL actually helps to prevent heart disease. That’s why higher numbers for HDL and lower numbers for LDL are most desirable. As a woman, you have higher HDL cholesterol levels than men. That’s because estrogen raises HDL cholesterol. And that’s why women tend to have the highest levels of HDL during their childbearing years. Women also tend to have higher triglyceride levels. Although triglyceride levels have not been isolated as an independent cause of heart disease, patients with higher triglyceride levels often have other risk factors that lead to heart disease, such as high total cholesterol, obesity and high blood pressure. Patients with high triglyceride levels usually have lower HDL levels as well. Triglyceride levels help physicians to identify risk for heart disease, but are not used on their own to determine this risk.

The total blood cholesterol level is the number that measures the combination of good and bad cholesterol in your blood. When you get your cholesterol tested, you also learn your levels of both LDL and HDL. It’s important to remember that you want a higher level of HDL (over 50 mg/dL) and a lower level of LDL (less than 160 mg/dL). Cholesterol levels are measured in terms of milligrams (mg) of cholesterol per deciliter (dL) of blood. That is the proportion that the letters at the end of your results stand for.

Total blood cholesterol is the most common measurement of cholesterol, and the number you will most likely discuss with your doctor. It’s important to ask about your HDL and LDL levels as well. According to the American Heart Association, your total blood cholesterol level will either be desirable, borderline high risk or high risk. You may also get a reading of your LDL or HDL cholesterol levels in addition to your total blood cholesterol level.

A desirable total blood cholesterol level is less than 200 mg/dL. That means that, barring any other risk factors, you are at a relatively low risk for heart attack. Even if you have a desirable blood cholesterol level, you may be at risk for heart disease otherwise. Keep on track to a healthy heart and remember to get your cholesterol levels measured every five years.

If your cholesterol level is between 200 and 239 mg/dL then, you are at borderline high risk. This means you should closely monitor your cholesterol level by getting checked every year. You should also take the appropriate measures to care for your heart health.

If your total cholesterol level is 240 mg/dL or more, you are at high risk for heart attack and stroke. Actually, people whose cholesterol level is greater than 240 have twice the risk of coronary heart disease as those whose level is 200. If you fall into this category, talk to your physician about a low cholesterol diet, medication and other steps you can take to lower your blood cholesterol.

High blood cholesterol does not cause any symptoms by itself. Far too many people, especially women, are unaware that their blood cholesterol level is too high. When it comes to blood cholesterol levels, the best thing you can do is remember to get tested no matter how healthy you feel.

Blood Pressure
Blood pressure is literally that–the pressure of blood against the walls of the arteries. It results from the force created by the heart while it contracts to pump blood into the body as well as the force of the arteries as they resist blood flow.

High blood pressure is a risk factor for heart disease because it makes your heart work harder than normal to pump enough blood and oxygen to your body. And when your heart is forced to work that hard for an extended amount of time, it may become enlarged or weakened. High blood pressure also negatively affects your arteries. High blood pressure damages the artery walls and can speed up the hardening and scarring of arteries. It also contributes to atherosclerosis. High blood pressure impairs your heart’s ability to pump blood out to your body, and it also impairs your body’s ability to transport that blood throughout your body. Without the proper nutrients and oxygen from a healthy blood flow, your tissues and organs can’t work properly. That’s why high blood pressure not only contributes to heart disease, but also to problems with other organs and tissues in your body. Lastly, high blood pressure increases your risk of developing a blood clot.

Blood pressure, as you may already know, is measured in two numbers—one “over” the other. The higher number is the systolic pressure, which represents the pressure while the heart contracts to pump blood to the body. The lower number is the diastolic pressure, which represents the pressure when the heart relaxes between beats.

According The American Heart Association, blood pressure below 120 over 80 is considered optimal for adults. A blood pressure reading of 140 over 90 or higher is considered high. Remember that one high reading is not a clear indicator of high blood pressure. Talk to your doctor about monitoring your blood pressure if you have one high reading. Hypertension is the medical term for high blood pressure. The only way to really tell if you have high blood pressure is to have your levels checked regularly. There are no physical symptoms of high blood pressure alone.

Although you see blood pressure reading devices at the gym, in the pharmacy and at other random public places, it’s very important that you have your physician take your blood pressure reading. Although it’s responsible to measure it yourself, and some physicians advise patients with chronic hypertension to take their blood pressure readings at home, you can only really depend on a certified medical professional to interpret your blood pressure appropriately.

Many factors contribute to high blood pressure, and many of these factors are the same factors that contribute to heart disease in general. They include:

  • Family history of high blood pressure
  • Race – According to the American Heart Association, African Americans are at a higher risk of developing high blood pressure.
  • Increasing age – Blood pressure tends to increase with age, especially after the age of 55 for women.
  • Sodium sensitivity
  • Obesity and overweight
  • Physical inactivity
  • Heavy alcohol consumption
  • Diabetes mellitus, gout and kidney disease
  • Use of some oral contraceptives and other medications – If you are taking oral contraceptives, you are more likely to develop high blood pressure only if you are overweight, have already had high blood pressure during pregnancy, have a family history of high blood pressure or have kidney disease.
  • Pregnancy – Some women who have never had high blood pressure in their life develop it during pregnancy. Women are at an even greater risk of developing high blood pressure during the last three months of pregnancy.

If you are diagnosed with hypertension, you will need to keep a close eye on your heart health and monitor your blood pressure. Speak to your physician about other steps you can take to lower your blood pressure, including certain medications.

Body Mass Index (BMI)
If you have too much fat in your body, then you are at a higher risk for developing high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. These are all contributing factors to heart disease and stroke. Not only that—obesity is now recognized as a major, independent risk factor for developing heart disease. That’s why it’s so important to keep an eye on your bad fat intake (such as trans fat) and diet, to keep physically active and to not only watch your weight but also watch your BMI.

The BMI shows the ratio of your weight to your height. It’s based on a mathematical formula that divides your weight in kilograms by the square of your height in meters. The BMI is designed to show your percentage of body fat. Guidelines for determining obesity are based on a collection of data from a population of people representative of the population of the U.S. The chart below will show you your BMI. A BMI of 25 to 29.9 is indicative of overweight, and a BMI of 30 or over is considered obese.

There are other ways to monitor your body’s fat, such as your waist circumference and waist-to-hip ratio. However, these tests are less popular and slightly less accurate than the BMI. Your doctor will be able to perform other tests, such as waist circumference measurement, blood tests and family history, to identify your health risks and obesity level.

Blood Glucose Level
According to some studies, your blood glucose level may be related to heart disease. Although many of these studies are fairly new, blood glucose provides a new tool for physicians to weigh when determining the risk level of a patient for heart disease. Blood glucose levels are helpful for determining risk in diabetic patients, but studies have shown that they may also be beneficial when determining risk in non-diabetic patients.

Your blood glucose level is measured by looking for Hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c), which is a long-term measure of your blood glucose level. There are many successful clinical trials that are going on that will help to show if blood glucose levels are helpful in decreasing cardiovascular risk in patients without diabetes.

Click below to read about related topics.

A Healthy Heart
Cardiovascular Disease
Understanding the Risks
Interpreting the Numbers
Steps You Can Take Today
On the Road to a Healthy Heart