Numbers That Could Save Your Life

Admit it, you're obsessed with numbers. You memorize your mile splits, know your average time for 100 meters in the pool, how far you run each day, and maybe even how many crunches you can do in a minute. But, quick -- what's your blood pressure? How about your fasting blood sugar?

Healthy living goes beyond just measuring how fast you can go or what your max heart rate is. In fact, it's the numbers that can't be measured with a stopwatch that mean most to your health. Consider that heart disease, the number one killer of American women, when combined with stroke kills twice as many women annually as all forms of cancer combined.

If you haven't had your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar measured in the past couple of years, it's time to see your physician.

The Pressure Is On

High blood pressure rates are on the rise, with approximately 50 million Americans having high blood pressure, or hypertension. According to the American Heart Association, the number of deaths linked to high blood pressure rose 53 percent between the years 1991 and 2001. This increase is linked to an aging population, a rise in obesity and the amount of processed and sodium-rich foods Americans eat. Tragically, one-third of those with high blood pressure, commonly referred to as the silent killer, are unaware they have it.

So how low should you go? Scientists with the Joint National Committee on Prevention, Detection, Evaluation and Treatment of High Blood Pressure released stricter blood-pressure guidelines in 2003. What once was considered "normal" or "high-normal" (120/80 and 139/89) is now referred to as "prehypertension." Normal blood pressure is now defined as less than 120/80. Why the change? Recent studies have shown that the rates of heart disease and stroke begin to rise earlier than previously believed.

The Highs and Lows of Cholesterol

While total cholesterol is the most common cholesterol measurement, it's not the most significant predictor of heart disease. Knowing what makes up the total is more critical. A fasting lipid profile should consist of cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL), high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and triglycerides. LDL cholesterol carries cholesterol from the liver to other tissues. During passage, it can scar or block arteries. That's why LDLs are often called the "bad cholesterol." Try to keep your LDL cholesterol lower than 100 mg/dl.

Acting as the good guys, HDL cholesterol sweeps up leftover cholesterol from the bloodstream and ferries it back to the liver for disposal. Ideally, your HDLs should be higher than 60 mg/dl. High levels of HDLs seem to protect against heart disease and stroke, so the higher the number the better.

Triglycerides are not a type of cholesterol, but they are a type of fat. When you eat more calories than your body needs at one time, the excess is converted to triglycerides, transported to fat tissue and stored for later use. Elevated triglyceride levels, above 150 mg/dl, can contribute to cardiovascular disease by causing blood to become more viscous and thus more likely to clog the arteries of the heart.

Blood Sugar, Not So Sweet

An estimated 18 million Americans have diabetes, defined as a fasting blood sugar above 126. As with hypertension, one-third of diabetics have not been diagnosed. An additional 41 million adults ages 40 to 74 have prediabetes, with a blood sugar level too high to be called healthy but lower than the threshold for diabetes.

Most prediabetics don't know they have a higher risk of developing diabetes. Prediabetes, a fasting blood sugar in the range of 100 to 125, increases the risk for cardiovascular disease by 50 percent. Full-blown diabetes doubles to quadruples the risk and can cause permanent eye, kidney and nerve damage.

What's in a Number?

If you have any risk factor for heart disease, treat it now with lifestyle changes and medication if indicated. Exercise, not smoking, modest weight loss and a healthy diet all offer protection against the number one killer of women. Check the following charts to see if your numbers add up to a healthy lifestyle.

Category: systolic (top number) / diastolic (bottom number)

  • Normal: less than 120 / less than 80
  • Prehypertension: 120 - 139 / 80 - 89
  • Hypertension, Stage 1: 140 - 159 / 90 - 99
  • Hypertension, Stage 2: 160 and higher / 100 and higher
  • (Numbers apply to adults not on medications for hypertension. If your systolic and diastolic pressures are in different categories, you are placed in the higher category. Source: NHLBI)

    Total cholesterol level (mg/dl)

  • Desirable: Less than 200
  • Borderline high: 200 - 239
  • High: 240 and above
  • LDL cholesterol level (mg/dl)

  • Desirable: Less than 100
  • Near optimal: 100 - 129
  • Borderline high: 130 - 159
  • High: 160 - 189
  • Very high: 190 and above
  • HDL cholesterol level (mg/dl)

  • Desirable: 60 and above
  • Near optimal: 40-59
  • Undesirable: Less than 40
  • Number Update

    If you haven't had any of the following tests performed recently, schedule an appointment with your physician to do so. Testing varies with age and risk factors, so ask your physician to recommend a schedule based on personal and family medical history. Here are some general guidelines.

    Test: When to Check

  • Blood pressure: Every two years
  • Fasting blood sugar: Every three years
  • Fasting lipid panel: Every five years

  • Jill Weisenberger, M.S., R.D., specializes in weight management, diabetes and wellness, and is a certified diabetes instructor.

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