The first step toward heart health is becoming aware of your own personal risk for heart disease. Some risks, such as smoking cigarettes or being overweight, are obvious: All of us know whether
we smoke or whether we need to lose a few pounds. But other risk factors, such as high blood pressure or high blood cholesterol, have few visible signs or symptoms.
So you’ll need to gather some information to create your own personal “heart profile.”
Getting answers to these questions will give you important information about your heart health and what you can do to improve it. You may want to bring this list to your doctor’s office.
- What is my risk for heart disease?
- What is my blood pressure? What does it mean for me, and what do I need to do about it?
- What are my cholesterol numbers? (These include total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL) “bad” cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) “good” cholesterol, and triglycerides.) What do they mean for me, and what do I need to do about them?
- What are my body mass index (BMI) and waist measurement? Do they indicate that I need to lose weight for my health?
- What is my blood sugar level? Does it mean I’m at risk for diabetes?
- What other screening tests for heart disease do I need? How often should I return for checkups for my heart health?
- For smokers: What can you do to help me quit smoking?
- How much physical activity do I need to help protect my heart? What kinds of activities are helpful?
- What is a heart healthy eating plan for me? Should I see a registered dietitian or qualified nutritionist to learn more about healthy eating?
- How can I tell if I’m having a heart attack?
How To Talk With Your Doctor
The first step in finding out your risk is to make an appointment with your doctor for a thorough checkup. Your physician can be an important partner in helping you set and reach goals for heart health. But don’t wait for your doctor to mention heart disease or its risk factors. Many physicians don’t routinely bring up the topic, especially with their female patients.
New research shows that women are less likely than men to receive heart healthy recommendations from their doctors. Here’s how to speak up and establish good, clear communication between you and your doctor.
- Ask for what you need. Tell your doctor that you want to keep your heart healthy and would like help in achieving that goal.
- Ask questions about your chances of developing heart disease and ways to lower your risk.
- Also ask for tests that will determine your personal risk factors.
Be open. When your doctor asks you questions, answer them as honestly and fully as you can. While certain topics may seem quite personal discussing them openly can help your doctor find out your chances of developing heart disease. It can also help your doctor work more effectively with you to reduce your risk.
Keep it simple. If you don’t understand something your doctor says, ask for an explanation in plain language. Be especially sure you understand why and how to take any medication you’re given. If you are worried about understanding what the doctor says, or if you have trouble hearing, bring a friend or relative with you to your appointment.
You may want to ask that person to write down the doctor’s instructions for you.
Tests That Can Help Protect Your Health
Ask your doctor to give you these tests. Each one will give you valuable information about your heart disease risk.
- Lipoprotein Profile
- Blood Pressure
- Fasting Plasma Glucose
- Body Mass Index (BMI) and Waist Circumference
1. Lipoprotein Profile
- What: A blood test that measures total cholesterol, LDL “bad” cholesterol, HDL “good” cholesterol, and triglycerides (another form of fat in the blood). The test is given after a 9- to 12-hour fast.
- Why: To find out if you have any of the following: high blood cholesterol (high total and LDL cholesterol), low HDL cholesterol, or high triglyceride levels. All affect your risk for heart disease.
- When: All healthy adults should have a lipoprotein profile done at least once every 5 years. Depending on the results, your doctor may want to repeat the test more frequently.
2. Blood Pressure
- What: A simple, painless test using an inflatable arm cuff.
- Why: To find out if you have high blood pressure (also called hypertension) or prehypertension. Both are risk factors for heart disease.
- When: At least every 2 years, or more often if you have high blood pressure or prehypertension.
3. Fasting Plasma Glucose
- What: The preferred test for diagnosing diabetes. After you have fasted overnight, you will be given a blood test the following morning.
- Why: To find out if you have diabetes or are likely to develop the disease. Fasting plasma glucose levels of 126 mg/dL or higher in two tests on different days mean that you have diabetes. Levels between 100 and 125 mg/dL mean that you have an increased risk of developing diabetes and may have prediabetes. Diabetes is an important risk factor for heart disease and other medical disorders.
- When: At least every 3 years, beginning at age 45. If you have risk factors for diabetes, you should be tested at a younger age and more often.
4. Body Mass Index (BMI) and Waist Circumference
- What: BMI is a measure of your weight in relation to your height. Waist circumference is a measure of the fat around your middle.
- Why: To find out if your body type raises your risk of heart disease. A BMI of 25 or higher means you are overweight. A BMI of 30 or higher means you are obese. Both overweight and obesity are risk factors for heart disease. For women, a waist measurement of more than 35 inches increases the risk of heart disease and other serious health conditions. For men, a waist measurement of more than 40 inches increases risk.
- When: Every 2 years, or more often if your doctor recommends it. There are also several tests that can determine whether you already have heart disease. Ask your doctor whether you need a stress test, an electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG), or another diagnostic test.