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Four ways to measure your heart health

February 07, 2023
Keeping your heart healthy is an important part of your whole health. Even though heart disease doesn’t always show physical signs until it causes a bigger issue, such as heart attack or stroke, the body has other ways of telling us when something’s not right. That’s why it’s so important to make sure you and your doctor regularly check your cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar, and body mass index.
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that runs through the blood. Two important types are LDL, often called “bad” cholesterol, and HDL, the “good” cholesterol. Too much bad cholesterol can build up and increase the chance that blood flow is blocked in the arteries, causing a heart attack or stroke.
High cholesterol has no symptoms. Only a blood test can tell if cholesterol is too high. Most healthy adults need cholesterol tests every four to six years. However, doctors may want to test more often if there is a family history of high cholesterol or other risk factors.
A heart-healthy diet is one of the best ways to lower cholesterol. Focus on foods low in saturated and trans fats, like fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, low-fat dairy products, and healthier vegetable oils such as canola, corn, and olive. A type of medication called “statin” can also help lower bad cholesterol.
Blood pressure
Blood pressure is a measure of the force of your blood pushing against the walls of your arteries. With high blood pressure, also called hypertension, that measure is higher than normal, and it can lead to heart failure, heart attack, or stroke. Depending on your risk factors, doctors should check blood pressure at least once a year.
There are usually no symptoms of high blood pressure. Nearly half of American adults have high blood pressure and many of them don’t know it. Some factors for high blood pressure are out of your control, such as family history, age, gender, or race. However, healthy habits can often keep it in check, including regularly exercising, not drinking too much alcohol, eating right, and maintaining a healthy weight. The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet focuses on whole grains, fruits, and vegetables and is designed specifically to help lower blood pressure.
Blood sugar
Blood sugar comes from food and is the body’s main source of energy. When blood sugar is too high, especially for long periods of time, it can damage the blood vessels and nerves, and lead to issues like heart disease, stroke, and kidney disease. High blood sugar is most often linked with diabetes.
Very high levels can lead to frequent urination, increased thirst, blurry vision, feeling overly weak, tired, or confused, dry mouth, or nausea and vomiting. These symptoms can develop slowly over several days or weeks. Doctors should test blood sugar every one to three years, depending on the risk factors. People who have diabetes need to check their blood sugar several times a day.
Stress, overeating, illness, being overweight, or not having enough insulin can all trigger high blood sugar. Exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight, finding healthy ways to cope with stress, and following a diabetes-friendly diet can help lower blood sugar.
Body mass index
BMI is a number that estimates your level of obesity. It is calculated by dividing a person’s weight by the square of their height. BMI numbers are used to screen for weight categories that might make health problems more likely. It is not an exact science — many factors affect BMI, such as gender, race, age, and even muscle makeup, and not all of these factors are necessarily linked to a higher risk of health problems. However, there’s a lot of research showing that people with BMIs in the obese or morbidly obese ranges face a much higher risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, and heart failure, as well as other issues like trouble sleeping, breathing problems, or back and joint pain.
High BMI doesn’t have symptoms. Instead, high BMI is the most common sign of being overweight or obese. Obesity is considered a serious medical condition. If you know your weight and height, you can check your BMI anytime with a BMI calculator. Doctors typically check BMI once a year and consider it, along with many other health factors, to decide if it’s an issue.
A heart-healthy diet, like the DASH diet, and regular exercise can help lower BMI. Aim to exercise at least 150 minutes a week (or 30 minutes a day for five days).
Knowledge is power
It’s hard to make healthy changes if you don’t know you need to make them in the first place. Start by scheduling an annual physical. Please talk to your doctor about changes that may affect your health.