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Key Numbers for Heart Health

3 numbers that can change your life.
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WebMD Feature

We live our lives by the numbers: phone numbers, PIN numbers, stock market numbers.

But do you know the heart health numbers that could literally save your life? There are three key numbers you need -- including one surprisingly easy one that could give you a lifesaving preview of your cardiac risk.

  1. Your blood pressure
  2. Your cholesterol levels
  3. Your waist size

Healthy numbers mean a healthy heart. If you follow a healthy lifestyle -- eat a balanced diet, get regular exercise, and avoid smoking -- you can even turn bad numbers around.  

Small changes can make a big difference, says Lori Mosca, MD, director of the Columbia Center for Heart Disease Prevention in New York City.

"For every point you raise your HDL -- that's the 'good' cholesterol -- you reduce your risk of coronary disease by 2%," she says. "So just raising HDL by five points cuts your heart disease risk by 10%!"

When measuring your heart health numbers, don't just look at where you are -- look at where you're going.

"Trend lines are important," says Mosca. "If your blood pressure is below the cutoff point for high blood pressure, that's good, but if it's been going up, it's still a concern." On the other hand, if your cholesterol is high, but on the way down, pat yourself on the back (and keep working out).

Here's a quick guide to your heart-health numbers:

1. Blood Pressure: Key to Heart Health

Your doctor tells you your blood pressure numbers, or you hear the doctors on ER shout "pressure's dropping!" Do you actually know what that means?

Blood pressure consists of two numbers. Your systolic pressure measures the pressure of blood against artery walls when the heart pumps blood out during a heartbeat, while the diastolic pressure measures the same pressure between heartbeats, when the heart fills with blood. "Both of these numbers are important," says Mosca. "Just because one is normal doesn't mean you're off the hook."

  • Normal blood pressure is below 120/80.
  • Pre-hypertension is 120 to 139 (systolic) and/or 80 to 89 (diastolic).
  • Hypertension – also known as high blood pressure -- is 140 or higher (systolic) and 90 or higher (diastolic).

One in three adults in the U.S. -- about 74 million people -- has high blood pressure or pre-hypertension. Between 1996 and 2006, the number of deaths from high blood pressure rose by more than 48%.

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