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Know Your Numbers

Dr. Eugene Kaji Cardiologist, Southwest Health

Instead of giving heart-shaped candies or cherry-filled chocolates to your loved ones this Valentine’s Day, gift them the peace of mind that your heart will keep you around for a long time to come.  What’s the best way to ensure your heart is functioning properly?  Know your numbers!  No, not your social security number or spouse’s cell phone number.  Five significant biometric numbers can help you and your primary care physician determine if you are at risk for heart disease, the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States.  While heart disease is a scary topic to think about, it shouldn’t keep you from being proactive when it comes to your heart and overall health! Southwest Health’s Cardiologist, Dr. Eugene Kaji, shares a few tips for better heart health below.

Five key numbers are critical to have checked by your primary care physician to see if there are any concerning issues regarding your heart.  While people with a family history of heart disease are at a higher risk for developing symptoms, you can monitor your levels and stay up-to-date with healthy habits to keep your numbers where they need to be, as determined by your primary care physician. The five numbers include:

Total Cholesterol.  Total cholesterol is the total amount of cholesterol in your blood. This includes low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or “bad”) cholesterol and high-density lipoprotein (HDL, or “good”) cholesterol. Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance found in every cell in your body.  There is a range for a good total cholesterol level for adults.  A normal range for total cholesterol would be less than 200 mg/dL, and an elevated range would be above 200 mg/dL.  If you don’t know what your total baseline cholesterol is, it may be time to have a conversation with your doctor about getting it checked.  A high level of LDL or bad cholesterol raises your risk of heart disease and stroke.

Blood Pressure.  Blood pressure is the amount of pressure of blood pushing against the walls of your arteries. Arteries carry blood from your heart to other parts of your body.  Your blood pressure typically rises and falls throughout the day, but a good blood pressure reading would be around 120 over 80.  If your blood pressure number is higher than this, you can take steps to lower your levels.  Have a conversation with your doctor about what changes you can start making today, like exercising, taking medication, or changing your diet.

Blood Sugar.  If you have diabetes, as nearly 10% of the United States does, your blood sugar, also known as blood glucose, levels may be consistently high. Over time, this can damage your body and lead to many other serious heart-related problems.  Staying current with diabetes medication and checking your A1c at regulated times will help you better understand your blood sugar levels before they can seriously damage your heart.

Body Mass Index. BMI is the best tool to measure a person’s weight-to-height ratio, calculated by dividing one’s weight by one’s height squared. This metric is used as an indicator of whether someone is considered obese or underweight.  Obesity is recognized as an individual risk factor for developing heart disease.  Losing weight and maintaining the loss is imperative if you have other risk factors and are over overweight.

Minutes of Exercise.  One number you can directly control is the time you spend with an elevated heart rate.  Exercising is excellent for your heart and directly correlates with the biometric metric levels listed above.  The more time you can find to move your body, the better your heart will perform.  Regular physical activity lowers your risk of obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes.  But you don’t need to dedicate hours in the gym every day to make an impact on your heart.  The CDC recommends 150 minutes of activity per week.  If you struggle to get active during the day, schedule two 15 minute walks a day or a 30-minute workout after work.

If you have a family history of heart disease, you are at a higher rate of developing the disease.  However, there are lifestyle changes you can make to keep your heart pumping and working correctly.  Like with any new habit, the biggest thing to remember is to stay consistent.  Pick one small step and do it every single day for a few weeks before trying to adopt a new lifestyle habit into your day-to-day routine.  Below are four lifestyle habits to incorporate if you are trying to improve your heart health:

Watch What You Eat.  Maintain a diet that focuses on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, poultry, fish, and nuts.  If you eat mainly eat saturated and trans fat foods, learn to enjoy in moderation.  What does that mean?  Saturated fats occur naturally in meat and dairy products, primarily beef, pork, chicken, butter, cream, and cheese.  While it may be hard for a Wisconsinite to cut down on their cheese intake, it may help to lower your cholesterol.  Trans fats raise your bad (LDL) cholesterol levels and lower your good (HDL) levels and can be found in many commercially fried and baked foods like pastries, pizza dough, cookies, and crackers.

Find Alternatives to Alcohol. Drinking in excess increases your risk for high blood pressure, obesity, stroke, and heart disease.  If you consider yourself a drinker, enjoying your favorite beverages in moderation may help your heart.  For women, drinking in moderation is one drink a day and one to two a day for men.  And “one drink” may be a smaller proportion than you think.  In general, a drink is one 12-ounce regular beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of hard alcohol.

Finally Quit.  If you’re a smoker, it’s imperative finally kick the habit for your heart.  The American Heart Association reports that for all cardiovascular disease-related deaths in the United States, 20% are due to cigarette smoking.  Smoking and secondhand smoke can permanently damage your heart.

Schedule an Appointment. If you haven’t seen your primary doctor in a while, now is the time to plan an appointment. Scheduling a visit with your primary care physician can help you better understand if you are at risk for heart disease. They can test you for the above blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol, and BMI levels.

If you didn’t know, February is Heart Health Awareness Month, a dedicated time to understand your heart better, how it impacts your overall health, and how you can improve it. What’s a better way to spread awareness than scheduling an appointment with your primary care physician to understand your number better?  After your appointment, talk to your friends and family!  Share what you learned and how you’re planning on improving your heart health.  Adapting new lifestyle habits like changing your diet or incorporating exercise into your day is easier with support.

While it’s great to talk about heart health during this time, you should be working towards bettering your heart all year long.  If you have questions about your heart health, don’t hesitate to get in touch with your primary care physician.  At Southwest Health’s Specialty Clinic, cardiologist Dr. Eugene Kaji is available for direct care for patients with heart and cardiovascular concerns with or without a referral.  Southwest Health is proud to have cardiology available for all patients.