If you read my articles regularly, you know how passionate I am about healthy living for fully making the most of this life and preparing for the next.  Though not a health professional, I’m a pretty good cheerleader when it comes to promoting positive health choices.

You may remember that in my last article I shared the sad news that a neighbor exactly my age (56) had passed away unexpectedly from a heart attack three days after Christmas.  This sad passing has caused more than mourning for the loss of a wonderful guy; it has caused the entire neighborhood to question the state of our own health and hearts.  After all, there was seemingly nothing wrong with him other than high blood pressure and some extra weight … ailments that are common to vast throngs of us.

The Sunday after he died, a dear friend, again of the same age, shared with me the details of her back pain associated with a recent injury.  “It’s all part of getting older, I guess,” she said with a wry smile.  “But what about YOU?  You never complain or seem to have anything wrong!”

I had to admit it was true, and shrugged it off, with “Good genes, I guess…”  Later in the day I teamed her comment up with my doctor’s response after my bi-annual physical exam last November:  “Well, there’s absolutely nothing here to talk about, unless you have questions.  Other than a genetic pre-disposition towards osteoperosis that you must address with fosomax, extra calcium and weight-bearing exercise, you’re the picture of health!  You’re clearly doing everything you need to, so keep it up.” 

Wow! As I left, I considered the fact that the last time I’d had a real visit at the doctor’s for anything other than routine check-ups was when I delivered my last baby nearly 18 years ago.  I filed away the lab report and test results without a second thought.  Those numbers never made sense to me anyway. 

However, my neighbor’s death, my friend’s question and my doctor’s report, have weighed upon me.  After all, as a weight-loss author, I share health habits with lots of people all the time – I, of all people, should have a better understanding of these basic tests and their results!

It turns out I’m not alone.  Cholesterol, LDL, HDL – Triglycrides?  Blood pressure readings? Who could keep them all straight? I felt relieved to learn in my February Ladies Home Journal that research indicates many of us do not know our cholesterol numbers or have even a basic clue of how the numbers –including blood pressure readings- determine our heart health.   

Funny, I guess there are a lot of things we just don’t learn – even when basic information is readily available – until we’re ready to hear it!  The article states that “even most doctors don’t have time to personally explain lab results.”  Yup, true for me!

The article had some basic, easy-to-understand information that left me running for my filed away lab report.  If you have yours, you’ll be newly interested after reading this information.

What is Cholesterol?

So, what is cholesterol?  READ THIS FIRST:– it’s NOT the same thing as fat.  It’s a soft, waxy-like substance pretty much produced in the liver.  It’s not really “bad” as it vital for many body processes.  However, when there’s too much and it’s teamed up with being overweight and a poor health lifestyle regarding exercise and food choices, it increases the risk for heart attack and heart disease.

There are actually two different cholesterol types:  One good and one bad – In the past this is where cholesterol information for me got fuzzy and I tuned out.

H is for HEALTHY: The “Good” Cholesterol is called HDL – short for High Density Lipoprotein.  Think to yourself: “H is for HEALTHY Cholesterol .
Ideal count is Over 50.  Mine was 68

L is for LOUSY: The “Bad” Cholesterol is called LDL, short for “low-density liproprotein:.  Think to yourself: “L for LOUSY Cholesterol.”  Ideal count is under 100.  Additional reading says that up to 130 is considered normal.  My count of 132 was a little higher than I had anticipated for how my doctor had raved.

Combined Total of 200 Is Ideal Your total is the two numbers added together. 

How Does Cholesterol Function?

Well, the bad (LDL) cholesterol circulates through your blood system and deposits small amounts in the walls of the blood vessels.  Over the years it builds up and other stuff traveling through your bloodstream, i.e. waste products or unprocessed calcium, gets stuck on the cholesterol deposits.  All of this gunk combines to form “plaque” which causes shortness of breath, chest pain, or a heart attack.

At first the plaque looks like chicken fat. As it grows it can obstruct blood flow and cause people to feel winded when they climb stairs, or cause chest pain.  Even worse, as the blood is pounding over this fatty plaque, the plaque can get inflamed and then rupture.  This may cause a blood clot to form in an attempt to heal the rupture.  The clot can then grow and break away and cause even more blockages requiring surgery (angioplasty to widen the artery) or stints (a metal tube inserted into the widened artery) or even bypass surgery where a vein from another part of the body is surgically routed around the blockage.

If the blockage still stops blood flow to the heart, you’ll have a heart attack, even if you’ve never had symptoms before.  I believe this is what happened to my neighbor.

HDL (the “good” cholesterol”) functions by actually absorbing some of the “bad” LDL cholesterol.  The best way to increase the HDL is with physical exercise – actually quite a lot of it is required to make a difference in the numbers, but any amount of exercise will improve the quality of your HDL.

Trigylcerides:  Below 100 is Ideal

These really are basically fats –from foods you’ve eaten or made directly from the liver – that are carried through the bloodstream to be stored in your tissues.  This number actually reflects what you’ve been eating lately.

A high triglyceride level increases your risk of coronary artery disease and diabetes.  Though some doctors say 150 is “normal” others say that is much to high and that 100 is a much better “normal”.

Mine was 72 at this November 2010 appointment.

How can you change the numbers?

You already know: eat better, exercise, get your weight in control, get rid of the gunk!
If doing it on your own doesn’t get the job done, you may need medication from your doctor.

So what about blood pressure?  Those 2 numbers always confused me too (I’m so embarrassed to admit this …)

What is Blood Pressure?

Blood is carried from the heart to all parts of your body in vessels called arteries. Blood pressure is the force of the blood pushing against the walls of the arteries. Each time the heart beats (about 60-70 times a minute at rest), it pumps out blood into the arteries.

Your blood pressure is at its highest when the heart beats, pumping the blood. This is called systolic pressure. When the heart is at rest, between beats, your blood pressure falls. This is the diastolic pressure.

Blood pressure is always given as these two numbers, the systolic and diastolic pressures. Both are important. Usually they are written one above or before the other, such as 120/80. The top number is the systolic and the bottom the diastolic. When the two measurements are written down, the systolic pressure is the first or top number, and the diastolic pressure is the second or bottom number (for example, 120/80). If your blood pressure is 120/80, you say that it is “120 over 80.”

I can keep them straight by thinking of the word SUNDOWN.

SUN starts with S for Systolic pressure and rhymes with UP. Mentally picture yourself exercising outdoors with your  heart rate up while the sun is high up in the sky: This is the UPPER part of the reading.  IDEAL IS 120 or below.

Then DOWN where the D for Diastolic pressure when the heart rate goes down and is recorded on the lower-down part of the reading.  Mentally picture resting after the sun goes down.  80 is considered normal.

Blood pressure changes during the day. It is lowest as you sleep and rises when you get up. It also can rise when you are excited, nervous, or active.  I listened to a recent news article that the number of heart attacks go up during the Super Bowl – which makes sense.

Still, for most of your waking hours, your blood pressure stays pretty much the same when you are sitting or standing still. That level should be lower than 120/80. When the level stays high, 140/90 or higher, you have high blood pressure. With high blood pressure, the heart works harder, your arteries take a beating, and your chances of a stroke, heart attack, and kidney problems are greater.

My blood pressure, at the time of this last physical, was 98/61

After finally understanding the basics of blood pressure and cholesterol numbers, I remembered again my doctor’s satisfaction and my Relief Society friend’s comment:  ”You never complain!  No aches or pains! You have more energy than anyone. You’re not aging … at all!”

I thought about it, and then realized that though I am blessed with good genes (other than weight wise) a number of health habits are in place.  True, I will always wish I weighed 5-10 pounds less, but when I lost the weight for the last time ten or twelve years ago –(about 15 pounds) I’ve kept if off.  Though I don’t go to the gym, I have a day job (at an elementary school cafeteria) that keeps me on my feet and requires quite a bit of lifting for several hours a day.  Fruits, veggies, whole grains and legumes are what we eat the most of, with meat (now only poultry or lean beef) saved pretty much for Sunday dinner.  Occasionally we’ll have fish during the week.  Two years ago my husband and I gave up dairy products – saving what little we do eat for a bit of cheese two or three times a week.  Whole wheat flour is our preference, although I admit that I battle sugar cravings constantly.   I win those cravings 75% of the time.  We get our flu shots every year.  For three years now I’ve been drinking an enjoyable herbal de-tox tonic that keeps my system clean and moving (see it at www.MyMiracleTea.com) and now we’ve added the Kyani products for top-of-the line nutrition and prevention.  (Learn more at www.Kyani.info)

There’s no denying it’s all paying off and very much worth the effort.  My current health is no guarantee for a long life as we all know of perfectly healthy people who have died without warning with absolutely no cause. Until my neighbor died, however, I had no real understanding of heart health and how it all comes together.  Now that I do understand it, I am marveling again at the human body, its marvelous intricacies and the great masterpiece our Heavenly Father has given each of us as a stewardship to care for. It is our personal, God-given vehicle for fulfilling the measure of our individual creations. 

So much of how it functions and its longevity is up to us, and a matter of daily healthy living choices.

If you do not have your cholesterol, triglyceride and blood pressure readings handy, I urge you to get them! Figure out what you need to do, and do it.  My neighbor’s opportunity to change his health is gone, but with his passing is the powerful reminder that our Heavenly Father did not create winners or losers, he created choosers! 

With knowledge and zeal, I hope you’ll join me in choosing wisely today.

Carolyn Allen has been providing weight loss inspiration since 1999 both online and in community venues in the Washington, D.C. area.  Her book, 60 seconds to Weight Loss Success, is available at Amazon.com  Learn more about her herbal health tonic at www.MyMiracleTea.com