When you visit your health care provider, they measure your height, weight, blood pressure and temperature. Sometimes, such as with an annual physical exam, they might also draw blood in order to measure your cholesterol and blood sugar.
We are familiar with the process, but what do the numbers mean?
Shenika Bowles, M.P.H., L.P.N., supervises Carilion Clinic’s community health screening program. Her team regularly conducts free blood pressure and diabetes risk assessments throughout the region and they work with employers to conduct health screenings on site so people don’t have to take time off to monitor their health.
“We want to make it easy for people so in order to reach more of the community, we are reaching out to libraries too,” she said.
When someone participates in a community-based screening, their results can be shared with their primary care providers so they can receive appropriate treatment and consultation in a timely manner.
The information below comes from the American Heart Association (AHA) and materials Shenika’s team shares with screening participants.
Your height, gender and overall frame indicate your ideal weight range. The AHA considers a body-mass index (BMI) of 18.6 to 24.9 to be in the healthy range, with a waistline 35 inches or smaller for women and 40 inches maximum for men.
No single indicator tells everything about a person’s overall health, so BMI is just one measure providers use to get a full picture.
Your blood pressure is a measurement of the force of your blood against your arteries when your heart beats (systolic pressure) and rests (diastolic pressure). A healthy resting blood pressure is less than 130/80 (systolic over diastolic).
Numbers higher than that—high blood pressure, or hypertension—indicate that your heart is working too hard.
- Normal: less than 120/80
- Elevated: 120-129/80
- Hypertension stage 1: 130-139/80-89
- Hypertension stage 2: 140/90 or higher
- Hypertensive crisis (seek medical attention immediately): 180/120
Blood pressure changes with stress, activity and certain medical conditions, so your provider will monitor your blood pressure over time.
Hypertension is treated with lifestyle changes (diet, exercise, smoking cessation, etc.) and with medications.
If left untreated, it can result in hardening of the arteries, heart disease, stroke, congestive heart failure, kidney disease and blindness.
Cholesterols are waxy substances that your body uses as a building block for new cells. Your liver produces all the cholesterols you need, both low-density (LDL, or “bad”) and high-density (HDL, or “good”) cholesterols.
However, diet can increase the amount of cholesterol in your blood, both because of the cholesterol they contain (dietary cholesterol in meats, poultry and full-fat dairy products) and because they stimulate your liver to create more cholesterol than it does on its own (meat and dairy as well as palm, palm kernel and coconut oils, which are often found in baked goods).
The AHA recommends that all adults age 20 and older have their cholesterol checked every four to six years in order to determine their risk for cardiovascular disease and stroke.
While they used to recommend a total cholesterol concentration of 200 milligrams per deciliter of blood (mg/dL), research has shown that the ratio of LDL to HDL is a more telling risk indicator.
To determine your risk, your provider will consider your cholesterol levels together with age, family history, blood pressure, whether you smoke and other risk factors.
Your provider may refer to your cholesterol test as a “lipid panel.” It will include a measurement of the triglycerides in your blood as well as LDL and HDL cholesterols. A high triglyceride level is another risk factor for heart disease and stroke.
It can be caused by genetics or other health conditions, but they are often a result of obesity and lifestyle: Physical inactivity, cigarette smoking, excess alcohol consumption and a high-carbohydrate diet.
The amount of glucose, or sugar, in your blood varies widely throughout the day depending on what, when and how much you eat and drink.
When your provider orders a blood glucose test to check for diabetes or prediabetes, they will have you fast for eight or more hours ahead of time so that no food or drink affects the baseline measure of HbA1c (glycosylated hemoglobin) in your blood.
A measure of 100 to 125 mg/dL indicates prediabetes; 126 mg/dL or higher indicates diabetes.
Improving Your Numbers
High blood pressure, lipids and diabetes can be caused by genetics and other health conditions as well as by diet and other lifestyle choices.
Your provider will develop a treatment plan that is appropriate for you and may include medications as well as lifestyle changes.
Whatever your numbers, the following lifestyle choices recommended by Carilion Clinic’s Community Health and Outreach team can help improve or maintain your medical profile:
- Eat healthy foods: five to nine fruits and vegetables each day; whole grains, poultry, fish and nuts; and reduced fats, red meats, sweets and sugared beverages
- Reduce salt and sodium in your diet to a maximum of six grams, or one teaspoon, per day
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Be physically active, with at least 30 minutes of continuous activity most days
- Limit your alcohol consumption to one (women) or two (men) drinks per day
- Quit smoking