Health Matters 2/26: Heart Health By the Numbers


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By Muhammad Azam, M.D.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, claiming more than 600,000 lives each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Often, heart disease develops silently as plaque builds up in the arteries over time, causing them to narrow and reduce blood flow to the heart.

That’s why a regular checkup with your doctor, with blood work, on an annual basis is so important.

Guidance from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the American Heart Association include recommendations to work with your doctor to monitor six different numbers that can be an indicator of your heart disease risk.

Cholesterol. Your total cholesterol number should be under 240, with an ideal score of being 200 or less. Annual blood work will reveal where you stand on the cholesterol scale.

Blood Pressure. Blood pressure is considered high if either the top number is 130 or above or the bottom number is 80 or above. Keeping your blood pressure under control is a key factor in heart health.

Blood Glucose Level. Your blood glucose number should be under 100. Testing can diagnose diabetes and prediabetes, where glucose numbers are higher than normal, but not yet considered diabetes. Left untreated, over time diabetes can affect your heart.

Resting Heart Rate. Your resting heart rate — how many times your heart beats per minute when you are at rest — can be checked with an exercise monitor or by taking your pulse. A healthy resting heart rate is between 60 and 90 beats per minute.

Body Mass Index. Body mass index, or BMI, is the ratio of weight to height. Diet and exercise can help you keep your BMI within a healthy range that falls between 19.5 and 24.9.

Waist Circumference. Carrying excess weight around your abdomen puts you at greater risk of developing heart disease and diabetes. If you’re a man, your waist circumference should be less than 40 inches. If you’re a woman, your waist circumference should be less than 35 inches. A measurement can be taken at home with a tape measure. Wrap it around your torso, just above your hip bones at the level of your naval, exhale naturally, and then measure.

In addition to knowing your numbers, you should also be sensitive to any changes in your health between doctors’ visits, particularly if you have a family history of heart disease, and make your doctor aware of them.

When to Call 911

Almost every 40 seconds someone in the United States has a heart attack, according to the American Heart Association. Signs of a heart attack include:

• Chest discomfort: Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or that goes away and comes back. It can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain.

• Discomfort in other areas of the upper body: Symptoms can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.

• Shortness of breath: This may occur with or without chest discomfort.

• Other signs of a heart attack may include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.

If you experience signs of a heart attack, call 911. The quicker you get help the better your chances of survival.

At Penn Medicine Princeton Medical Center (PMC) a special team of board certified physicians, specialists, and nurses provides prompt, quality care to heart attack patients, including critical life-saving treatments such as emergency angioplasty.

Emergency angioplasty is a procedure used to open clogged arteries in response to a heart attack. The procedure quickly increases the flow of blood and oxygen through blocked arteries without the need for invasive heart surgery. Only state-licensed facilities, like PMC, can offer this procedure, which has been proven to reduce mortality rates in heart attack patients.

Protect Your Heart

With these numbers in mind, and following certain lifestyle guidelines, you can do a lot to protect your heart. Not smoking, eating well, controlling your weight, getting regular exercise, and monitoring stress are things everyone should be focused on in order to be as heart healthy as possible.

To find a primary care physician affiliated with Penn Medicine Princeton Health, call 1-888-742-7496, or visit

Muhammad Azam, M.D., specializes in family medicine and is a member of the medical staff at Penn Medicine Princeton Health.

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