If understanding the basic readings from your doctor are confusing, you’re not alone! Here are some quick ways to understand and remember what all those numbers mean.

A dear neighbor passed away several years ago who was exactly my age (at the time 56). It was very unexpected, three days after Christmas in the evening, while sitting in a chair watching a ballgame on TV with his elderly father. It was shocking to all of us. Yes, he loved to eat, and yes, he loved his pipe. And yes, he was too busy professionally to exercise much.   It’s now four years later and his wife, my very good friend, is figuring out how to steer her retirement years without him.

His sad passing has caused more than mourning for the loss of a wonderful guy; it has caused many of our neighbors and friends 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 weigh –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.” Regular medical testing shows the same thing, I’m in excellent health. Maybe it’s genes, but maybe it’s lots of vegetables, exercise and minding the scale too. Either way the real truth is: I can never keep it straight in my head how to read blood pressure, heart rate, etc. I just have to take his word for it … or do I?

It turns out I’m not alone. Cholesterol, LDL, HDL – Triglycrides?  Blood pressure readings? 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? How can it be “Good” and “Bad” at the Same Time?

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 is 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 Lipoprotein.  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 my 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 sounds like 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.

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. Your best starting place? With Jane Birch’s articles right here at Meridian, and a trip to both her website, www.DiscoveringTheWordofWisdom.com, and then another trip to www.forksoverknives.com for recipes and the tools to create a healthier life.

Here’s to your health!