Do You Know Your Heart Numbers?

Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005

Knowing your blood pressure, cholesterol, body fat, and even your CRP can go a long way toward preventing the No. 1 killer.

By Jeanie Lerche Davis
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Michael Smith

Your PIN number, your password. You can't operate without them.

Add high blood pressure, cholesterol, and body fat to that list, too. You can't live without those numbers -- literally.

High numbers = high odds of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.

Some risk is inherited. But much is linked to things you can change -- like bad diet, smoking, and a sedentary lifestyle.

"Walking is perfectly fine," Michael Crouch, MD, a family and community medicine specialist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, tells WebMD. "Anything is better than nothing, but 30 minutes a day is what we recommend."

To better understand your heart numbers, here are the basics:

C-Reactive Protein

This is new on the heart numbers list. Researchers have identified this protein as a marker for heart disease and stroke -- even in kids.

They don't fully understand the relationship between C-reactive protein (CRP) and heart disease, but it's a sign of inflammation in the blood vessels.

Getting your CRP checked is not yet a routine recommendation. However, more and more doctors are using it to help identify people who may be at an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.

Numbers to worry about:

  • 1.0 and less is considered normal.

  • 1.0 to 3.0 mg/dL is increased risk.

  • 3.0 to 10.0 mg/dL is high risk.

"If you have a family history of heart disease, without a lot of other risk factors, you may have high C-reactive protein -- you may have inherited it," Crouch says.

Blood Pressure

One of the strongest markers for heart disease is measured in two numbers - your blood pressure. You hear the numbers, but do you know what they mean?

The first or top number is systolic blood pressure -- the pressure of blood against artery walls during a heartbeat, when the heart is pumping blood.

The second number is diastolic blood pressure - the pressure of blood against artery walls between heartbeats, when the heart is filling with blood.

  • Normal blood pressure is 119/79 mmHg or below.

  • Pre-hypertension is 120 to 139 (systolic) and/or 80 to 89 (diastolic) mmHg.

Do these numbers seem a bit lower than you remember? What's considered a normal blood pressure was redefined in May of 2003 when guidelines were revised to include a new category -- prehypertension.

Experts recommend that people with prehypertension -- an estimated 45 million men and women -- make heart-healthy lifestyle changes to reduce their risk of blood pressure complications, such as heart disease, stroke, and kidney damage.


Probably the most familiar heart disease risk factor, cholesterol is a type of fat that is an essential nutrient for your body. However, too much cholesterol - or not enough of the good type of cholesterol -- floating around in your blood increases your risk for hardening of the arteries that can lead to heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.

Cholesterol is considered abnormal when:

  • Total cholesterol is 200 mg/dL or higher.

  • HDL or "good" cholesterol level is less than 40 mg/dL

  • LDL or "bad" cholesterol is 160 mg/dL or higher -- with 190 and above being very high. However, the lower the LDL, the better. An LDL less than 100 is considered optimal; 100 to 129 is near optimal; 130 to 159 is borderline high.

Body Mass Index (BMI)

This is an indicator of your body fat, a quick way to see if you are overweight. BMI may be overestimated in people with a lot of muscle mass, such as body builders.

BMI uses a person's weight and height to gauge total body fat. You can use this handy chart to easily estimate your BMI.

  • A BMI of 24 or less is ideal.

  • A BMI of 25 to 30 is overweight.

  • A BMI of 30 to 39 indicates obesity.

  • A BMI over 40 indicates morbid obesity, which increases a person's risk of death from any cause by 50% to 150%, according to The Cleveland Clinic.

Type 2 Diabetes

Overweight and too little exercise -- that's what greatly increases the risk of type 2 diabetes. It's nothing to take lightly because it can lead to heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, and even blindness.

A fasting blood sugar test -- after not eating or drinking anything but water for at least 12 hours -- is most commonly used to diagnose type 2 diabetes.

  • A normal fasting blood sugar is less than 100 mg/dL.

  • Prediabetes is a fasting blood sugar of 100 to 125 mg/dL.

  • A fasting blood sugar of 126 mg/dL or greater indicates diabetes.

"The bottom line is, take it seriously," says Crouch.

Published March 5, 2004.

SOURCES: Michael Crouch, MD, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston. WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise. WebMD Medical Reference in collaboration with The Cleveland Clinic: "Body Mass Index (BMI)."

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