Heart disease runs in my family, and I’m unlucky enough to have it on both sides. I’ve lost two grandparents to it, and my parents and extended family members are all on medication for cholesterol or high blood pressure, some popping pills for both conditions each day. They were all athletes in their youth and continue to lead active lifestyles in retirement my dad, at age 70, skis 4-5 days each week!
Knowing the history in my family, I’ve spent nearly all of my adult life aware of my blood pressure, cholesterol, and waist measurement numbers, and battling to keep them at an acceptable, while striving for optimal, range. I take special note of my cholesterol, due to my family’s numbers pushing beyond the “very high” overall number and the possibility I will have the same problems. While my overall number is on the higher side, my preventive-health lifestyle has helped me to keep my good cholesterol (HDL) high and my bad cholesterol (LDL) low, which makes my doctor very happy.
Following a heart-healthy lifestyle, including having a good diet and exercise routine, can help prevent heart disease. On the other hand, tobacco use, body mass index and sleep deprivation can negatively affect your heart health. But even if you lead a lifestyle that Michael Phelps would envy, it is always a good idea to have regular screenings and find out your numbers.
Below, the experts from the Highmark health plan Promotion/Wellness Team have compiled a quick reference guide to help you assess your numbers on three important components of heart health: cholesterol, blood pressure and waist measurement. Read on to know if you have any potential risk factors for developing heart disease.
Cholesterol is a waxy, essential fat-like substance made in the liver and other cells. It is found in certain foods, such as food from animals, like dairy products, eggs and meat. The body needs some cholesterol in order to function properly, but when too much is present, health problems may develop.
There are also different types of cholesterol. “Good” cholesterol is known as High-Density Lipoprotein or HDL. HDL helps protect against heart disease the higher the number, the better.
“Bad” cholesterol is known as Low-Density Lipoprotein or LDL. LDL is the main cause of heart disease. It collects in the walls of the blood vessels, which causes blockages to the arteries. The lower your number, the better.
A variety of factors can affect your cholesterol levels; they include diet, weight, exercise, age and gender, diabetes, heredity and other causes like medication.
Blood pressure is the force of blood pushing against blood vessel walls. High blood pressure, or hypertension, is the most common cardiovascular disease. Your blood pressure reading is made up of two numbers, systolic (top number) and diastolic (bottom number). Constant high numbers, either on the top or bottom, put a strain on the heart and blood vessels.
Managing your blood pressure (see sidebar for some quick tips) can help you achieve better health now and in the future. Smoking, stress, genetics, lack of physical activity, age, chronic kidney disease and obesity are some causes of high blood pressure.
Waist measurement is a measure of the distance around the abdomen. It is a key indicator of excess midsection fat. A high waist measurement or a greater level of abdominal fat is associated with an increased risk for type-2 diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and heart disease.
Many employers hold preventive health screenings on site each year. If your employer does not, or if you carry your own insurance plan, nearly all Highmark health plans cover a yearly physical. Get out there, have a check up and learn your numbers — they could save your life.