Heart Health: Knowing Your Numbers

Jan 23, 2023

Katie Breazeale, MS, RD, LD


Have you ever been given your lab results and thought what in the world is this? Heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the US. There are different reasons as to why you may be considered high risk for heart disease. You may also be at risk due to hereditary. It is not promising when your family has all had some form of heart disease.


Some risk factors are in your control and are modifiable through your lifestyle while other risk factors are un-modifiable.


Un-modifiable Risk Factors

  1. Age

  2. Race

  3. Hereditary


Modifiable Risk Factors

  1. High blood pressure

  2. Diabetes or prediabetes

  3. Overweight or obesity

  4. Smoking

  5. Lack of exercise

  6. Diet of unhealthy foods

  7. Stress

  8. High total cholesterol


Modifiable risk factors are ones we can change to improve our health and decrease our risk of heart disease or other chronic health conditions. To start let's get to know your numbers and what they mean. 


There are lab tests that can be done to see if you are at risk or already have heart disease. Blood pressure and a lipid panel are the most common methods. A lipid panel is a blood test that looks at 4 different components: total cholesterol, HDL, LDL, and your triglycerides. 


Blood Pressure. This test can help understand if your blood pressure is too high or low and need a diagnosis for hypertension or hypotension.

Systolic blood pressure (the first number) – indicates how much pressure your blood is exerting against your artery walls when the heart beats.

Diastolic blood pressure (the second number) – indicates how much pressure your blood is exerting against your artery walls while the heart is resting between beats.


Systolic is the main number you want to keep an eye on for cardiac disease. This number will indicate your risk for disease.

  • Normal: <120/ <80 mm Hg

  • Elevated:120-129/ <80 mm Hg

  • High Blood Pressure Stage 1: 130-139/ 80-89 mm Hg

  • High Blood Pressure Stage 2: >140/ >90 mm Hg

  • Hypertensive Crisis: >180/ >120 mm Hg


HDL. High-Density Lipoproteins is your “good” cholesterol. It transports bad cholesterol from the blood to the liver, where it is excreted by the body. This is a number you want to be higher to help prevent cardiac disease.

  • Normal: Less than 40 mg/dL for men

  • Normal: Less than 50 mg/dL for women

  • Optimal: 60 mg/dL


LDL. Low-Density Lipoproteins is your “bad” cholesterol. These are the main cause of plaque build-up and increases your risk for heart disease.

  • Optimal: Less than 100 mg/dL (This is the goal for people with diabetes or heart disease.)

  • Near optimal: 100 to 129 mg/dL

  • Borderline high: 130 to 159 mg/dL

  • High: 160 to 189 mg/dL

  • Very high: 190 mg/dL and higher


Triglycerides. These are fats. They’re stored in your fat cells in your body.

  • Normal: Less than 150 mg/dL

  • Borderline high: 150 to 199 mg/dL

  • High: 200 to 499 mg/dL

  • Very high: Above 500 mg/dL


Total Cholesterol. Cholesterol is a waxy fat like substance that is created in your liver. There is also the cholesterol we take in from consuming animal products. Too much can lead to a build up in your arteries (atherosclerosis). 

  • Normal: Less than 200 mg/dL

  • Borderline high: 200 to 239 mg/dL

  • High: At or above 240 mg/dL


Understanding these numbers is a great starting place for improving your heart health.  We might even go so far as to say diet, exercise, managing our stress, body composition, are ways we can move our labs into healthy ranges. When we keep our labs in healthy ranges, it's like keeping the lights on your dashboard of your car from coming on. When they do, they're often a warning that something needs to be correct. Your labs do that too. Ideally we want do preventive maintenance to keep those lights from turning on the car, and we want to do health maintenance to keep our labs always in healthy ranges.

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