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Wed, Feb. 19

Know what your numbers really mean

Your doctor has your numbers, all of them. During your regular medical checkup, your healthcare provider typically will check your blood pressure and cholesterol levels as part of an assessment of your overall health. But do you understand what these numbers mean? The more you know, the better prepared you'll be to keep your blood pressure and cholesterol levels in the healthy range.

Blood pressure

Your blood pressure reading consists of two numbers: the systolic and diastolic. The first number, the systolic reading, measures the pressure your blood places on your arteries while your heart is pumping. A normal systolic blood pressure reading is below 120. If your systolic blood pressure reading is between 120 and 139, you may have borderline high blood pressure, also called prehypertension. A systolic reading of 140 or higher is considered to be high blood pressure, or hypertension.

The second number is the diastolic reading. It measures the pressure in your arteries as your heart rests between beats. A normal diastolic reading is below 80. A reading between 80 and 89 may indicate prehypertension, and a reading of 90 or higher is considered to be hypertension.

It's important to monitor your blood pressure regularly because high blood pressure has no early warning symptoms. The first symptom of this "silent killer" may be a heart attack, stroke or kidney damage.


Your body makes about 75 percent of the cholesterol - a waxy substance found in the blood - that's in your body. The rest of your cholesterol comes from the animal-based products that you consume such as meat, eggs and dairy items.

A cholesterol screening measures two types of cholesterol: "good cholesterol" and "bad cholesterol." HDL is the "good" cholesterol. It helps prevent the "bad" cholesterol, called LDL, from attaching to your artery walls. This protects you from heart attack and stroke.

With HDL cholesterol, higher levels are better. Low HDL cholesterol - less than 50 mg/dL for women and less than 40 mg/dL for men - increases your risk for heart disease, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). An HDL cholesterol of 60 mg/dL or higher provides some protection against heart disease.

For the bad cholesterol, the AHA recommends an LDL of less than 200 mg/dL. A cholesterol level of 200 mg/dL or higher increases your risk for heart disease.

If your blood pressure readings are high or your HDL/LDL levels are worrisome, talk to your physician about how to bring them back in line. Lifestyle changes - diet, exercise and weight management - may be what the doctor orders. Some people may need medication, too. Knowing your numbers is the first step to managing your blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

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