With ever-busier schedules and an endless number of distractions competing for our attention, it can be hard to find time to prioritize wellness. But when it comes to heart health, remaining complacent is a risk you can’t afford to take.
A few heart disease facts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
- Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men, women, and people of most racial and ethnic groups in the United States.
- One person dies every 34 seconds in the United States from cardiovascular disease.
- About 697,000 people in the United States died from heart disease in 2020 — that’s one in every five deaths.
Those are sobering statistics, but the good news is that making positive health and lifestyle choices can go a long way toward protecting your heart.
“One of the best first steps you can take is to come in and see your primary care provider and get to know your numbers,” says Katie Boerst, a family medicine nurse practitioner with ThedaCare Physicians-Darboy.
Know Your 4 Heart Health Numbers
Your primary care provider (PCP) can help you track and manage four key heart health numbers: blood pressure, total cholesterol, blood sugar and BMI.
Blood Pressure: 120/80
Blood pressure is the pressure of blood pushing against the walls of your arteries. The first number, called systolic blood pressure, measures the pressure in your arteries when your heart beats. The second number, called diastolic blood pressure, measures the pressure in your arteries when your heart rests between beats.
“We like to see your blood pressure around 120 over 80, but generally less than 140 over 90 is your target number,” Boerst says.
Blood pressure that remains high for an extended period of time can put your heart at risk. High blood pressure can damage your arteries by making them less elastic, which decreases the flow of blood and oxygen to your heart and can lead to heart disease.
High blood pressure also can cause the arteries that supply blood and oxygen to the brain to burst or become blocked, causing a stroke. Stroke can lead to serious disabilities or death.
Boerst says care teams realize that incidents of high blood pressure may be related to other circumstances such as feeling nervous, stressed or agitated. Your PCP will continue to monitor your blood pressure if you get a high reading. If you do get diagnosed with hypertension, your PCP can look at prescribing a medication.
Total Cholesterol: 200 mg/dl or lower
You can get both your cholesterol and blood sugar measured with a quick and easy blood draw.
Cholesterol is made up two parts:
LDL (bad) cholesterol is a type of fat in the blood that contains the most cholesterol. It can contribute to plaque buildup in the arteries (atherosclerosis). This is linked to higher risk for heart attack and stroke. An optimal LDL number is 100 mg/dL or lower.
HDL (good) cholesterol helps remove cholesterol from the blood. This keeps plaque from building up in your arteries. You want your HDL to be as high as possible. An optimal HDL number is 60 mg/dL or higher.
People tend to think of cholesterol as bad, but your body needs it to build cells and make vitamins and other hormones, Boerst says.
“Cholesterol can be good, but too much of it can clog up in your arteries and cause a stroke or heart attack. So, a safe level for cholesterol is less than 200,” she says.
If you have high cholesterol, your PCP may prescribe a medication called a statin. These drugs work by reducing the amount of cholesterol the liver makes and helping the liver remove cholesterol that is already in the blood.
Blood Sugar: 100 mg/dl or lower
Ideally, fasting blood sugar levels should be at 100 mg/dl or lower. When blood sugar — or glucose — stays at high levels for a long time period, it can indicate type 2 diabetes.
“With type 2 diabetes, you have risk for clotting events like strokes and heart attacks as well as organ damage,” Boerst says.
Body Mass Index: 20-25
Body mass index (BMI) measures the ratio of your height to your weight to estimate the amount of body fat you have.
“We like your BMI to be between 20 and 25. That means that your weight is healthy for your height,” Boerst says.
A high BMI — especially 30 or higher — puts more stress on the heart. Maintaining a healthy weight can help protect your heart.
Another Test to Consider
Beyond watching these four numbers, your PCP may recommend a CT calcium score screening. This is especially the case if you are or were a smoker, you have a family or personal history of cardiovascular disease, or you have other heart disease risk factors.
The test uses a specialized X-ray that provides pictures of your heart. It can help your PCP detect and measure calcium-containing plaque in your arteries. Plaque inside the arteries of your heart can grow and restrict blood flow to the muscles of your heart. Measuring calcified plaque with this test may allow your PCP to identify coronary artery disease before you have signs and symptoms.
“From there, we might have a more serious conversation about starting on cholesterol medication,” Boerst says.
Take Positive Steps
Making positive health changes can improve your heart health.
The American Heart Association recommends the following:
- Quit smoking
- Balance calories with physical activity
- Reach for a variety of fruits and vegetables
- Choose whole grains
- Include healthy protein sources, mostly plants and seafood
- Choose minimally processed foods
- Reduce added sugars
- Cut down on salt
- Limit alcohol
- Prioritize healthy sleep
Boerst acknowledges that making big changes can feel overwhelming.
“You can start small and build from there, and before you know it, you’ll build a set of healthy habits,” she says.
Prioritize your heart health.
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