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Key Numbers for Heart Health

3 numbers that can change your life.

2. Cholesterol: Predictor of Heart Attack continued...

Here are the numbers to strive for:

  • Total cholesterol of 200 mg/dL or lower.
  • HDL ("good" cholesterol) of 50 mg/dL or higher, if you're a woman, or 40 mg/dL or higher, if you're a man.
  • Optimal LDL is 100 or lower, says Mosca. If you have other major risk factors, like pre-existing cardiovascular disease or diabetes, your doctor may want your LDL closer to 70.
  • Triglycerides of less than 150 mg/dL.

LDL is the number most doctors and heart health programs focus on in particular, says Mosca. "Every single point of LDL decrease makes a difference," she says. "If your LDL is at 140 and you get it down to 130, that's great, even if you haven't reached optimum levels yet."

Adults 20 and older should get a lipid profile  every five years.

3. Waist Size: The Connection to Heart Disease

If you can only remember one number, your waist size is the one to know. Why? Because better than your weight or your BMI, your waist size predicts your heart disease risk, says Mosca. If your waist size is equal to or more than 35 inches in women and equal to or more than 40 inches in men, it increases your risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, metabolic problems, high blood pressure and abnormal cholesterol.

It's easy to measure yourself. Just get a non-elastic tape and measure around your belly button.

"If patients lose even 1 inch off their waist, we see improvements in all the other heart health numbers," Mosca says. "Conversely, if they gain even 1 inch, we see worsening in those numbers. It's a much better indicator than weight, because you can be gaining weight and still losing waist size if you're working out and gaining lean muscle mass."

Special Numbers for People With Type 2 Diabetes

If you have type 2 diabetes, there are two other numbers you need to watch: your blood sugar and your hemoglobin A1c levels.

  • A normal fasting blood sugar is less than 100 mg/dL.
  • Prediabetes is a fasting blood sugar of 100 to 125 mg/dL or an A1c of 5.7%-6.4%
  • You may have diabetes if your fasting blood sugar is 126 mg/dL or greater or your A1c level is 6.5% or higher – and you've gotten these results two or more times

But because spot glucose checks can vary dramatically, HbA1c levels are a better measure of whether your diabetes is under control. Here, there has been some controversy.

"Doctors like to see a HbA1c level of less than 7," says Mosca. "But recent research has shown that when we're more aggressive with diabetics and get the number below 6, they actually have more problems. We're still learning -- for example, aggressive management in a frail elderly person with a lot of medical problems may not be the best idea, while in an otherwise healthy young person, it might be. It's important to talk to your doctor as to what's best for you."

No matter what your numbers, the most important thing to know is that they can all be helped by healthy lifestyle choices. "Even small changes in your physical activity, your nutrition, and your smoking habits can have a major impact on your heart health," Mosca says.

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Reviewed on March 22, 2010

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