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Get Your Health Numbers in Check

Do you need to lower your cholesterol levels? Or is high blood pressure your problem? Not to worry, there is hope.

WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Our lives are made up of important numbers. Phone numbers. Social Security numbers. Bank account numbers. Well, here are a few more -- your blood pressure and your cholesterol. Knowing these numbers can mean the difference between living a healthy life or facing serious illness, or even death.

"You should know your own blood pressure and cholesterol numbers," emphasizes Christine Bussey, MD, clinical director of nuclear cardiology at Inova Fairfax Hospital in Fairfax, Va. "The best customer is an educated one."

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Knowing the generally recommended guidelines for healthy numbers is the first step, says Michael D. Ozner, MD, president of the American Heart Association of Miami and author of The Miami Mediterranean Diet: Lose Weight and Lower Your Risk of Heart Disease.

Don't Wait for Hypertension

Ideal blood pressure readings are lower than 120/80. High blood pressure is considered once the blood pressure reaches 140/90. The range in between these two readings is now known as "pre-hypertension" and can put you at higher risk for developing full-blown hypertension (or high blood pressure), which increases your risk for cardiovascular "events" such as heart attack or stroke, says Ozner.

For patients who fall into the "pre-hypertension" category, doctors first determine their risk factors -- do they have diabetes, or prior cardiovascular disease, or chronic kidney disease, for example. "For patients who are already high-risk, we're more strict, and we'll prescribe medication right away," says Ozner. For most people, however, the first step in getting blood pressure numbers under control is making lifestyle changes such as losing weight, quitting smoking, beginning an exercise program, and managing stress.

Begin with a sensible nutrition program, Ozner recommends. Add fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products to your diet, while avoiding excess salt, caffeine, and alcohol. Also cut down -- way down -- on processed foods and hydrogenated oils. He recommends adding 1/2 teaspoon of ground cinnamon (sprinkle on oatmeal, in applesauce, or in yogurt, for example), which is believed to lower blood pressure, as is pomegranate juice.

Exercise can help lower your blood pressure, and if you're overweight, can help you shed unwanted pounds (and lower weight often translates into lower blood pressure). "You don't need to go to a gym to get the exercise you need," says Ozner. "Just walking at least 30 minutes a day can have significant benefits."

Stress can also contribute to high blood pressure readings, so anything that can help you manage the constant irritations of life -- whether yoga, meditation, visualization, even prayer -- should be added to your daily regimen. "They work," says Ozner, who also recommends reading what is considered to be the "bible" among stress management guides, The Relaxation Response by Herbert Benson, MD.

If lifestyle changes bring your blood pressure numbers down to normal range, then you probably won't need medication. "But not everyone can achieve the desired results without medication," says Ozner, hastening to add that medications accompany lifestyle changes, they are not a substitute for them.

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