Understanding your heart health is an excellent habit to get into, even if you don’t have heart issues. That’s because heart disease — which includes a group of conditions such as coronary artery disease, heart attack and others — is the leading cause of death in Americans. The good news is many of the leading risks and causes of heart disease are controllable, and when given the right information, even preventable.
Here are four heart health numbers to know and why:
1. Blood pressure
Blood pressure is a go-to measurement for medical staff taken in nearly every medical setting, from checkups and immunizations to blood donations and car crashes. It’s the first clue doctors and nurses have to gauge your heart’s strength and check for other medical conditions for which you may be at risk. The measurement is also important because high blood pressure — which can lead to heart disease and stroke — doesn’t typically have symptoms, even at dangerously high levels.
For the average healthy adult, blood pressure ranges fall into the following categories, as defined by the American Heart Association (AHA):
- Normal blood pressure: Lower than 120 systolic and lower than 80 diastolic
- Elevated blood pressure: 120-129 systolic and lower than 80 diastolic
- Stage 1 high blood pressure: 130-139 systolic or 80-89 diastolic
- Stage 2 high blood pressure: 140 systolic or higher, or 90 diastolic or higher
For those with normal or elevated blood pressure, doctors recommend you continue or start regular physical activity to lower or maintain your numbers. Those with Stage 1 or 2 high blood pressure (hypertension) should talk with a doctor. If your blood pressure is 180 over 120 or higher, seek immediate medical attention.
2. Cardiac calcium score
A heart scan, or specialized heart X-ray, shows doctors how much calcium-containing plaque is in your coronary arteries (the arteries closest to your heart). When plaque hardens, or calcifies, through natural processes, it becomes harder for your heart to move blood through your body and harder to remove buildup from your arteries. The test measures the relationship between plaque and calcification and can help doctors identify cardiovascular disease before it develops. Early detection is especially important if you have a family history of heart health risks, even if you haven’t had any heart issues.
In general, if your calcium score is less than 100, you are at low risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Calcium scores between 100 and 300 suggest a moderate risk, and scores above 300 are associated with a high risk of cardiovascular disease.
3. Cholesterol (lipid panel)
When people think of cholesterol, they often think of dietary cholesterol, which is a naturally occurring substance in most fats, such as cooking oils, meat and eggs. But there is also blood cholesterol, which is made by your liver to help your body move and digest fats, including dietary cholesterol, and is an important building block for cells and hormones.
While it’s natural and necessary to have cholesterol, too much of it can be bad for your health. Elevated cholesterol can contribute to plaque buildup in your arteries, a condition called coronary artery disease. This disease makes it harder for your heart to pump blood normally and can even block blood flow, increasing your risk of heart attack, stroke and heart disease.
The results of a lipid panel, a blood test for cholesterol, will give you four numbers that measure fat in milligrams per deciliter of your blood (mg/dL):
- Total cholesterol, which the AHA recommend be less than or equal to 180 mg/dL
- LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, recommended to be less than 70 mg/dL
- HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, recommended to be greater than 60 mg/dL
- Triglycerides, recommended to be less than 150 mg/dL
4. Blood glucose (A1C)
A1C is a blood glucose test which measures the average amount of a type of glucose-carrying blood cell called A1C in your body during a two- to three-month period. Glucose is the most common form of energy that fuels our bodies, and it needs insulin, produced naturally in the pancreas, to enter those cells. If it isn’t managed, too much glucose can thicken blood, a concern if you also have high LDL cholesterol or arterial plaque, and can negatively impact insulin production or effectiveness (leading to Type 2 diabetes) and cause heart disease.
In most adults, a normal A1C level is between 4.5% and 5.7%. Levels between 5.7% and 6.5% may indicate pre-diabetes, and people who have an A1C level of more than 6.5% are considered diabetic.
Where can I get my heart health numbers?
Most adults get their blood pressure checked when they are seen by a doctor or nurse at a primary care checkup. Free web risk assessments are available for diabetes, cholesterol and heart disease, and some organizations may offer free in-person screenings for these conditions.
You can also schedule specific heart screenings with doctors who are experts in heart health. Programs such as the Love Your Heart Cardiac Screening can provide your exact numbers and next-step recommendations to improve your heart health.