Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Heart Attack and Stroke Risk - Know Your Numbers!

It is so easy to think our bodies are doing just fine, simply because we have not yet suffered from a health crisis.  As a result, we often ignore subtle signs which suggest something is wrong, especially when the only indicators are lab numbers which are slightly outside the ideal range.  We begin to ask ourselves, "how important could it be?" when our numbers are abnormal.

In March, 2019, the AARP Magazine ran an article on the numbers they consider most important in reducing our risk of heart attacks and strokes.  It also explained when we should be concerned about abnormal numbers and what we can do by ourselves to improve our test scores.

Personally, I found the article interesting.  I checked my numbers from my last physical and discovered that most of them were in the normal range.   However, like a lot of Americans, my BMI was too high and that is an issue I need to work on.  One number which was a new one to me was my VO2 MAX.  It was easy to calculate, however, and I was delighted that, despite my excess weight, it calculated that my fitness level was that of someone nearly three years younger than my real age.  I would like to reduce it even more than that. You'll learn more about how to calculate your VO2 MAX later in this article.

Below is a brief recap of the AARP recommendations, so you can see how you are doing, too.

Maintain a Healthy Cholesterol

Ideally, your cholesterol should be below 200.  However, according to AARP, a score of up to 240 may still be considered borderline.  Above 240, you should be concerned.  You will want to limit your consumption of red meat and full-fat dairy products if your number is too high.  Having a vegetarian day once or twice a week can also make a difference.  In addition, increase the amount you exercise until you are able to remain continuously active for at least 30 minutes, five days a week.

Watch Your Blood Pressure

Everyone should have a good quality blood pressure monitor (Ad) at home.  It is not enough to track it once a year at your doctor's office, when you may be nervous.  Ideally, your best blood pressure of the day should be under 130/80, although some doctors are still comfortable if it is as high as 140/80.  Try taking your blood pressure at different times of day, especially before you have exercised and consumed anything with caffeine in it.  If it is running a little high, eat more home cooked meals.  It is much easier to control your salt intake when you cook at home, and salt is one cause of high blood pressure.  In addition to lowering your salt intake, increase your potassium levels by eating avocados, bananas, potatoes, spinach and other vegetables.  Potassium reduces the sodium and water retention in your body, thereby lowering your blood pressure.

Measure Your Resting Heart Rate

Many modern blood pressure monitors and fitness trackers, such as newer models of Fitbit, (Ad) will also report your resting heart rate.  If not, you can measure it by using an ordinary watch. Count your heart beats for 15 seconds and multiply by 4.  Ideally, it should be between 60 and 100 beats per minute. Athletes are likely to have a lower resting heart rate.  If it is outside this range, ask your doctor if you should be concerned.

Watch Your Blood Glucose and AlC Levels

When your body becomes unable to regulate your blood glucose, you are at higher risk of diabetes, which also increases your heart attack and stroke risk.  Your blood glucose should be under 100.  In addition, your doctor will want to measure your A1C blood sugar level.  This test actually indicates your blood sugar levels over the preceding three months, so simply eating right for a day or two before your blood is tested will not lower your score.  A normal reading is under 5.7 percent.  In order to maintain healthy blood glucose and A1C levels, you should eat a diet which is low in sugar and high in protein, fruits, vegetables and whole grains.  Avoid sodas and juices.  According to the AARP article, you may also want to talk to your doctor about taking Vitamin D, which can lower your blood glucose levels and help other systems in your body, as well.

Check your Body Mass Index - BMI

Doctors have discovered that your Body Mass Index is a better indicator of health than your actual weight.  However, it is not always accurate.  Often, athletic people will appear to have a high BMI, when in reality their body fat is quite low.  Ideally, your BMI should be below 24.9.  If it is between 25 and 29.9, you are considered overweight.  A BMI over 30 would be considered obese.  The best way to lower your BMI is to drop some weight.  Even a reduction of 5 percent of your current weight can make a significant difference in your health.

Know Your Waist Circumference

A simple tape measure can help you know whether or not you are carrying too much of your weight in your stomach.  Exhale, and measure your waist.  Bend to one side for a moment to find your waist, if you are not certain where to measure.  Most men should have a waist circumference under 40 inches; women should have one under 35 inches.

Learn Your VO2 MAX Score

This was a number which was totally new to me.  If you belong to a gym, they may be able to calculate it for you by asking you to run on a treadmill to the point of exhaustion.  This was not realistic for me!  However, the good news is that there is a written online questionnaire which is remarkably accurate at making the calculations for you.  Go to worldfitnesslevel.org and take a few minutes to answer their questions.  When I did mine, they determined that my fitness age was three years younger than my real age, and the ability of my body to get oxygen to my heart was "good."  If you are unhappy with your score, you can improve it by increasing the intensity of your exercise and losing a little weight.

Keep Track of Other Numbers

Although AARP Magazine primarily discussed the numbers mentioned above, you may also want to discuss any other abnormal readings you have with your physician.  They do not always take the time to go over your lab work with you.  However, if your kidney function is beginning to decline (measured by rising creatinine levels), the sooner you change your diet, the more you will be able to slow down the decline in your kidneys.

Other lab tests can also be meaningful and help you determine whether your liver enzymes are optimal, as well as the condition of your thyroid and other glands. Find out the meaning of abnormal readings, whether the doctor mentions them to you or not.  Make a point of emailing your doctor about any abnormal test results and ask what you can do to get them back into the normal range.  Look up what an abnormal reading means, and check reputable online sites like WebMD, the Mayo Clinic or the Cleveland Clinic to learn more about the significance of your blood tests and what you can do to improve them.

If you hope to maintain optimal health as you age, you may also want to read "The Blue Zones Solution: Eating and Living Like the World's Healthiest People."  (Ad) It is based on research into why people in some areas of the world, including parts of the U.S., tend to live unusually long, healthy lives.

In addition, you can learn more about common health issues as you age, Medicare, Social Security, where to retire, financial planning and more by using the tabs or pull-down menu at the top of the page to find links to hundreds of additional articles on this blog.

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