Heart Health: Cholesterol & Blood Pressure

Two of the most important risk factors for developing cardiovascular disease are high cholesterol levels and high blood pressure. It is important to know your cholesterol level and blood pressure, because both conditions often do not show any warning symptoms before starting to cause cardiovascular damage.

Cholesterol is a lipid compound that actually performs necessary functions within the body. It is an important stabilizing component of cell membranes and it is used to synthesize other vital compounds, such as steroid hormones. Approximately a quarter of the cholesterol in your body comes from your diet, that is, if you eat animal products. The other 75% of the cholesterol is synthesized by the body itself. Despite being vital to life to have some cholesterol in your body, high levels of cholesterol are detrimental to cardiovascular health.

As most people know, high cholesterol levels are related to the development of atherosclerotic heart disease, a type of heart disease where fatty plaques build up in the arteries, restricting blood flow to the heart and putting you at risk for heart attacks. There are two kinds of cholesterol: high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL). HDL is called “good cholesterol”, because it prevents LDL, the “bad cholesterol”, from clogging arteries.

Ideally, for heart health, you want a low level of LDL, a low total cholesterol level, and a high level of HDL. A good total cholesterol level is below 200 mg/dL. HDL levels should be above 40 mg/dL for men and 50 mg/dL for women. LDL levels should be lower than 129 mg/dL. These numbers can be influenced by genetic factors, diet, and lifestyle. Treatment for cholesterol level varies from person to person: diet and lifestyle changes may help, or medication may be required, especially if high LDL levels run in the family.

High blood pressure, also called hypertension, affects 33% of Americans. When you have high blood pressure, the excess force on the vascular system causes damage, putting you more at risk for aneurisms, stroke, blood clots, heart attacks, and kidney problems. Damage to blood vessels make atherosclerotic plaques more likely to form, making the combination of high blood pressure and high cholesterol level a serious cardiovascular health risk.

Blood pressure is given as a fraction with two numbers, for example, 120/80. The numerator (top number) is the systolic pressure, which is the pressure when the heart muscle is contracting. The denominator ( the bottom number) is the diastolic pressure, or the pressure when the heart muscle is relaxing. For an adult, a healthy blood pressure level is less than 120/80. If the blood pressure is in between 120/80 and 140/90, it is considered prehypertension. Anything above this level is considered to be high blood pressure, and a blood pressure higher than 180/110 that persists for more than a few minutes is called “hypertensive crisis”. Blood pressure this high can cause immediate cardiovascular problems, and emergency medical attention is required.

To keep cholesterol levels and high blood pressure in check, you can take a few steps on your own.

Exercise regularly:

  • Take a walk everyday
  • If you drive, park farther away from the entrance

Have your Blood Pressure checked regularly:

  • At every chance you get, like the drug store or health fair.
  • Get an annual check up.
  • Ask the practitioner (healthcare professional) for the results of your blood pressure and cholesterol readings. Keep a diary of the results.

Maintain a healthy weight:

  • Eat 5 fruits or vegetables a day.
  • Try smaller portions.
  • You don’t have to eat everything on your plate.
  • Ask for lunch portions or half-portions at a restaurant.

Limit sodium (salt) in your diet:

  • Read labels.
  • Buy salt-free foods.
  • Remove the salt shaker from the lunch and dinner table.
  • Drink more water.

Monitor your alcohol and caffeine intake

  • Limit alcohol to one drink per day for women and 2 drinks a day for men.
  • A drink is defined as one can of beer, or 4 ounces of wine, for example.
  • For coffee drinkers, limit your morning cup of java to two cups.
  • Remember that caffeine appears in other foods-cola’s, teas & hot and cold chocolate milk. If you are sensitive, check labels.

High blood pressure does not always have obvious symptoms, but if you have symptoms of hypertension such as headache, blurred vision, dizziness, nausea, and chest pain, see your doctor immediately.


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