February is American Heart Month. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States and every year, one in four deaths is caused by heart disease. Fortunately, 80% of premature heart disease can be prevented through healthy habits. By simply being aware of what heart-health numbers to watch for, you can keep yourself and your heart happy and strong.
The American Heart Association recommends that all adults 20 or older have their cholesterol and other traditional risk factors checked every 4 to 6 years. Your doctor will give you a personalized target depending on you, your lifestyle, and your medical history. However, in general, you want to hit the following targets:
LDL (bad) cholesterol: Less than 100 mg/dL
HDL (good) cholesterol: higher than 60 mg/dL Triglycerides: Less than 150 mg/dL.
One of the most important things you can do for healthier cholesterol numbers is change your diet. Consuming less meat and eating a more plant-based diet that includes fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes has shown to have a positive impact on heart health. Plant-based proteins are lower in saturated fat (which clogs arteries) and higher in soluble fiber (which prevents plaque buildup), compared to meat.
2. Blood sugar
Type 2 diabetes is one of the major risk factors for heart disease. It also increases your risks of other heart-health red flags, such as high blood pressure. However, you do not have to have diabetes to be at risk of heart disease. Consistently high blood sugar levels damage arteries, so the danger starts before diabetes is diagnosed.
Americans should talk to their doctors about checking blood glucose levels. Guidelines for testing blood sugar are based on diabetes risk. One of those risk factors is being older than 45. Others include being overweight (with a body mass index of 25 or higher); a sedentary lifestyle; a family history of type 2 diabetes; a history of high blood pressure or high cholesterol; or a heritage that is African American, Hispanic, American Indian or Asian American. If you have any one of these risk factors, you should get the test done once. If it’s normal, get it done again in 3 years.
Ideal targets for blood glucose:
Fasting: 4.0 to 5.4 mmol/L (72 – 99 mg/dL)
One to two hours after a meal: Up to 7.8 mmol/L (140 mg/dL)
Like with cholesterol, diet and exercise play the most important part in maintaining blood sugar levels. Avoid refined foods and enjoy healthy fats and more fiber-rich foods.
Something as simple as a walk after meals has been shown to improve blood sugar levels. One study found that a 10-minute walk after each meal reduced blood sugar better than a single longer 30-minute walk taken at any other point during the day.
3. Weight and Waist Size
Although many experts consider your body mass index (BMI) to be an outdated and misleading health metric, but it can still provide clues to heart health. Being overweight or obese is usually, but not always, reflected in high BMI and waist size measurements. This means your BMI or waist circumference may indicate if you’re at a greater risk of diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol.
According to BMI, a number of 25 or higher means you’re overweight or obese. However, this number alone isn’t telling. When it is combined with the waist size, then heart disease risk is increased. A 40-inch or larger waist for men, or anything bigger than 35 inches for women, may indicate a higher risk of diabetes and heart disease.
A modest weight reduction of as little as 5% of body weight can reduce your high blood pressure and total blood cholesterol. Talk to your doctor about what a healthy weight is for you in order to have a healthy heart.
4. Blood Pressure
When you have high blood pressure, your heart is under extra stress and has to work harder to pump your blood through your blood vessels. Get your blood pressure checked at least once a year.
Ideal targets for blood pressure:
Low risk or normal: A result of 120/80 (systolic/diastolic) or lower
Medium risk: You’re at medium risk if you get 121-139/80-89.
High risk: 140+/90 is considered hypertension
To take control of your blood pressure, consider the following.
Eat less salt: The American Heart Association recommends no more than 2,300 milligrams (mgs) a day and an ideal limit of no more than 1,500 mg per day for most adults, especially for those with high blood pressure. Even cutting back by 1,000 mg a day can improve blood pressure and heart health.
Drink less alcohol: For lower blood pressure, men should have no more than two alcoholic drinks a day, while women shouldn’t have more than one drink daily.
Watch your weight: A tiny weight gain of only 5 lb has been shown to elevate your blood pressure.
Stress less: When you’re stressed, your blood vessels tighten and your heart beats faster, which drives up your blood pressure. Find ways that help yourself relax. Yoga, walks and reading can all be calming.
Photo from here, with thanks.