Know your numbers: Understanding cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure, and other health indicators
One of the best ways to evaluate your health is knowing your numbers. Understanding key health indicators like cholesterol, triglycerides, glucose, blood pressure, body mass index (BMI), and waist circumference can help identify your risk for disease and provide motivation for managing your health. Many diseases, like heart disease, diabetes, and obesity, can begin taking a toll on your health long before you feel anything wrong. Monitoring these numbers can help you see the bigger picture of your health; even if you feel great and look healthy on the outside, your numbers can tell you the real story of what’s going on inside.
Cholesterol is a fatty substance found in your blood that supports cells and certain hormones. The two main types of cholesterol most often discussed are: HDL (high-density lipoprotein) and LDL (low-density lipoprotein). HDL is often referred to as “good” cholesterol, while LDL is often referred to as “bad” cholesterol, but it its important to note that cholesterol, regardless of the type, is a necessary lipid used by your body. That said, Total cholesterol is the total amount of cholesterol in your blood, and is calculated by adding together HDL, LDL, and factoring in triglycerides. High levels of LDL cholesterol in the blood can suggest an increased risk of heart disease, while high levels of HDL cholesterol can suggest a decreased risk of heart disease.
Clinicians use cholesterol levels as part of an atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (ASCVD) Risk Estimator to estimate your 10-year and lifetime risks for coronary death or nonfatal myocardial infarction (heart attack), or fatal or nonfatal stroke. You can calculate your 10 year risk here.
How is cholesterol measured?
Cholesterol levels are measured with a blood test called a lipid panel.
How often should you check your cholesterol?
It is recommended that adults check their cholesterol every five years, or more often if you have a family history of high cholesterol or heart disease.
What are optimal cholesterol levels?
- Total cholesterol: under 200
- LDL: under 100
- HDL: 60 or higher
Triglycerides are a type of lipid (fat) found in your blood. Whereas cholesterol supports cells and certain hormones, triglycerides are a type of fat your body uses to store energy. When you eat, your body converts calories it doesn’t need to use right away into triglycerides, which are stored in your fat cells. High levels of triglycerides in the blood suggest an increased risk of heart disease.
How are triglycerides measured?
Triglycerides are measured with a blood test called a lipid panel.
How often should you check your triglycerides?
It is recommended that adults check their triglycerides at least once a year, especially if you have a family history of heart disease or high triglycerides.
What is a healthy triglyceride level?
An optimal triglyceride level is less than 150 mg/dL.
Glucose and A1c
Glucose is a type of sugar found in your blood that provides energy to your body’s cells. Elevated glucose levels can be a sign of diabetes.
How is glucose measured?
Blood glucose is measured with a blood test called an A1c or hemoglobin A1c. A1c is a simple blood test that measures your average blood sugar levels over the past 3 months. You can get your A1c level at a lab, hospital, clinic, or other medical setting, or even using a home test kit.
How often should you check your A1c?
Adults should check their A1c every three years, or more often if they have a family history of diabetes or if they are overweight.
What is a healthy A1c level?
A normal A1c level is below 5.7.
Blood pressure is the force of blood pushing against the walls of your arteries as your heart pumps blood throughout your body. The higher your blood pressure, the harder your heart needs to work to pump blood. High blood pressure can increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, and other health problems. Blood pressure is represented as two numbers–the first number represents systolic blood pressure, which is the force of blood on your artery walls during a heartbeat, and the second represents diastolic blood pressure, which is the force of blood on your artery walls between beats.
How is blood pressure measured?
Blood pressure can be measured by your healthcare provider using an inflatable blood pressure cuff and stethoscope. Some pharmacies and drug stores have free blood pressure machines, but accuracy will depend on proper use. You can also purchase a blood pressure monitor and do measurements at home.
How often should you check your blood pressure?
Adults should get their blood pressure checked at least once every two years, or more often if they have a family history of high blood pressure or heart disease.
What is a healthy blood pressure reading?
A healthy blood pressure reading is 120/80 mm Hg or less.
BMI and waist circumference
Maintaining a healthy weight is important for overall health. Being overweight or obese can increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and other health problems. Body mass index (BMI) is a measure of body fat based on height and weight. Bear in mind that excess body weight alone does not necessarily translate to poor health outcomes. Individuals with the same BMI can have very different medical conditions because many factors other than body weight contribute to disease.
Waist circumference is another important measure of body fat distribution. Excess fat around the waist can increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and other health problems. Women with a waist circumference greater than 35 inches and men with a waist circumference greater than 40 inches are at an increased risk of these health problems.
How are BMI and waist circumference measured?
You can estimate your BMI here in seconds, all you need to do is enter your height and weight.
To measure your waist circumference, you will need a tape measure. Wrap the tape measure around the widest part of your (typically, this is across your belly button), breathe in normally, and take the measurement on the exhale.
How often should you check your BMI and waist circumference?
How often you check your BMI and waist circumference will depend on your health goals. If your BMI and waist circumference are in a healthy range, you may only want to take these measurements annually or a few times a year. If you’re trying to lose weight and want to track progress, you may want to take these measurements everyday.
What are healthy ranges for BMI and waist circumference?
A healthy BMI is between 18.5 and 24.9 for non-Asians and between 18.5 and 22.9 for Asians and Asian-Americans.
A healthy waist circumference is 35 inches or less for women, and 40 inches or less for men.
Why it’s important to know your numbers
Monitoring and understanding these numbers can help you identify potential health problems early, when they are most treatable. For example, high levels of LDL cholesterol or triglycerides can be managed with lifestyle changes such as exercise and a healthy diet and, where appropriate, medication. High blood pressure can also be managed with lifestyle changes and medication.
Understanding these health indicators can also help you make informed decisions about your lifestyle. For example, if you have a family history of heart disease or high cholesterol, you may choose to adopt a heart-healthy diet and exercise routine to lower your risk of developing these conditions.
Keeping an eye on your numbers is an easy and quantifiable way to set and achieve health goals. Reaching a healthy BMI or maintaining a healthy waist circumference are tangible results that can come as a result of eating a balanced diet and getting regular exercise.
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