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WHILE you have so many important numbers to remember, such as your bank account PIN and your alarm system code, there are numbers which may be less familiar that you learn when you see your doctor for a routine physical and blood tests - your waist circumference, body mass index (BMI), blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides and blood sugar - which you need to know, because they provide important clues to your heart health, says the September issue of the Harvard Women’s Health Watch.

“The key is to focus on control of blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar and weight, to exercise and eat right, and to avoid tobacco,” says Deepak Bhatt, professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of the Integrated Interventional Cardiovascular Program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

“That is good advice for everyone trying to reduce their risk of heart disease.”

Once you know your numbers, you can take steps to lessen your heart risks through some common-sense lifestyle changes, even though you have the propensity for heart disease that you’ve inherited from a parent, adds the health letter.

In addition, adopting lifestyle measures may also lower your odds of getting diabetes and reduce the excess weight that can lead to joint pain, allowing you to lead a more mobile, independent life.

These six key health indicators are briefly discussed:

1) Waist circumference - Carrying too much extra weight around your middle puts you at increased risk for heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

To measure it: wrap a tape measure around your middle, about at the level of your belly button.

It is also helpful to calculate your waist-to-hip ratio - the size of your belly compared to your hips.

To get this ratio: divide your waist circumference by your hip circumference.

Healthy values: 35 inches or less waist circumference and 0.8 or lower waist-to-hip circumference.

To bring your numbers into normal range:

a) Pick up the pace - Walk, swim, bike or dance for at least 60 minutes on most days of the week;

b) Alternate aerobics with at least two days a week of strength training;

c) Make sure you’re really hungry before you eat, and never eat while reading a book, working or watching TV - you could consume more calories than intended; and

d) Avoid high-calorie, high-sugar packaged and processed foods.

2) Body mass index (BMI) - BMI is a measure of your weight in proportion to your height, which can indicate how much body fat you have - Being overweight or obese puts strain on your heart and increases your risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea and other health conditions.

How often you need to be tested:

During your regular checkup, your doctor should weigh you and calculate your BMI and you can also weigh yourself and keep track of your BMI at home using an online calculator (health.harvard.edu/topic/BMI-Calculator).

Healthy values: 18.5 to 24.9 kg/m2.

How to bring your numbers into normal range:

a) Aim for a healthy weight loss of 1 to 2 pounds per week - trim 500 calories a day from your diet;

b) Leave a little food on your plate, especially when eating out in restaurants. Save about 25 percent of your meal to eat the next day;

c) Choose foods that are nutrient-dense and high in fiber, such as carrots, tomatoes, oranges and oatmeal - they will make you feel fuller;

d) Instead of having a bowl of ice cream or piece of cake for dessert, reach for fruit.

3) Blood pressure - Having high blood pressure forces your heart to work harder, increasing your risks for heart disease and stroke, as well as for kidney disease and heart failure.

It’s important to get tested routinely, since you can have high blood pressure and never know it or feel it.

How often you need to be tested:

Every two years if you have normal blood pressure, once a year if your blood pressure is high-normal (between 120/80 and 139/89), and if your blood pressure is high (140/90 or greater), ask your doctor how often you need to be tested.

You can also test your blood pressure more often at home, but first ask your doctor to show you how to get an accurate measurement with your own blood pressure monitor.

Healthy level: Less than 120/80 mm Hg. How to bring your numbers into normal range:

a) Follow the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, which is high in fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy, and is low in saturated fat, total fat and cholesterol (For more information, see dashdiet.org.);

b) Limit salt to less than 2,300 milligrams (mg) per day (about a half teaspoon);  

c) Take a brisk walk around your neighborhood, office or recreation center for at least 30 minutes a day; d) Limit alcohol to one drink or less a day;

d) Eat foods that are high in potassium (such as bananas, spinach and baked potato), which lessens the effect of sodium. Talk to your doctor before taking potassium supplements, because getting too much potassium from supplements can be harmful to older adults, especially those who have kidney problems; and

e) Take a blood pressure-lowering drug, if your doctor says you need it.

4) Cholesterol - Having high LDL (bad) cholesterol and low HDL (good) cholesterol may contribute to the formation of fatty plaques in your arteries, which can lead to heart disease, heart attack and stroke.

How often you need to be tested:

That really depends on your overall heart disease risk - your doctor can give you guidance or you can use the calculator at diseaseriskindex.harvard.edu/update/.

Women with coronary artery disease or diabetes should be tested once a year - ask your doctor how often is appropriate for you.

Healthy values: Total cholesterol - Less than 200 mg/dL; HDL cholesterol - Greater than 50 mg/dL; LDL cholesterol - Less than 130 mg/dL (less than 100 mg/dL for those at high risk for heart disease).

How to bring your numbers into normal range:

a) Cut out foods that are high in saturated fat (meat, butter, whole milk) and trans fat (cookies, pastries, French fries) - Replace them with foods high in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats (canola oil, olive oil, fish);

b) Get no more than 200 mg of cholesterol per day in your diet by cutting back on high-cholesterol foods such as egg yolks, red meat, whole milk, cheese and shrimp;

c) Eat more of foods that help lower cholesterol, such as oatmeal, nuts, vegetable oils and fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, trout);

d) Take a cholesterol-lowering drug, such as a statin or fibrate, if your doctor prescribes it.

5) Triglycerides - Triglycerides are a type of fat - having high triglycerides combined with high LDL cholesterol speeds up the buildup of plaque in the arteries.

How often you need to be tested: Have your triglycerides tested when you have your cholesterol checked (see above).

Healthy level: Less than 150 mg/dL. How to bring your numbers into normal:

a) Because your body stores excess sugar as triglycerides, eliminate the extra sources of sugar in your diet - like sweetened cereals, sweet tea and sodas;

b) Add a few extra servings of high-fiber foods, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains; and

c) Take a triglyceride-lowering drug, such as a fibrate, niacin, omega-3 fatty acid or statin, if your doctor prescribes it.

6) Blood sugar - High blood sugar is an indicator that your body doesn’t make enough insulin or isn’t able to properly use insulin, a hormone that helps move glucose (sugar) from the blood into the cells.

The presence of high blood sugar over time can damage the blood vessels, nerves and organs, such as the kidneys and eyes.

If you know you have high blood sugar, you can take steps to lower it and possibly delay or prevent type 2 diabetes.

How often you need to be tested:

As part of a blood test done during a routine physical, your doctor should check your fasting blood glucose level or hemoglobin A1C.

Healthy levels: A fasting blood glucose level of less than 100 mg/dL and an A1C of below 5.7 percent.

How to bring your numbers into normal range:

a) Plan out each week’s meals in advance - choose recipes made from vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein (such as skinless chicken breast, tofu or fish;

b) Throw out the ice cream, cookies and other processed/packaged foods high in refined carbohydrates - replace them with lighter options, such as carrot sticks, whole-wheat pretzels, and hummus;

c) Make sure all the cereals and breads you buy say 100 percent whole grain on the package;

d) Write down everything you eat for two weeks - a food journal will let you see how many calories you’re consuming, so you can cut back, if needed; and

e) Also write down every time you exercise - make sure your exercise plan includes both aerobics and strength training. Regular exercise brings down blood sugar levels while it burns calories, concludes the health letter.

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