Aside from tossing that cigarette pack into the trash, the best starting point for protecting your heart — and living a longer life on this planet — is knowing your numbers.
At the top of that numerical pile? Blood pressure.
Whether you’re in your 20s or 50s, at risk of coronary disease or not, people should be aware of their systolic and diastolic blood pressure. That’s the first and second number that appear on the machine in the doctor’s office after the nurse removes that cuff squeezing your bicep.
The systolic reading measures pressure in the blood vessels during that moment when the heart is pumping out blood, explained Dr. Gabriel Solti Grasz, an internal medicine physician with Baptist Health Primary Care. The bottom number, the diastolic, measures pressure when the heart is at rest, he added.
Ideally, for non-senior citizens (as the systolic on people in their 60s and older can hover at 150 healthily), those numbers should be below 120/80. Pre-hypertension sets in the closer you get to 139 with a diastolic approaching 90. Hypertension, when the figures turn worrisome, is anything higher than that, he said.
“High blood pressure is one of the main culprits of cardiovascular disease. It can lead to myocardial infarctions [read: heart attacks], sudden death and an increased possibility of stroke and kidney disease,” Grasz said.
So, aside from upping your exercise to 30 minutes a day at least five days a week — and not a leisurely stroll down Brickell, but partaking in the kind of exertion that elevates your heart rate and produces sweat — medical professionals staunchly recommend a diet consisting of four to five servings of fruit and vegetables a day. This will help you achieve ideal blood pressure and heart health.
Also, while studies can’t quite pinpoint the correlation between heavy alcohol ingestion (more than two glasses of wine or two beers a day, for example) and hypertension, it’s there: So, dial back on the booze.
Then there’s cholesterol. As blood cholesterol rises, so does a person’s risk of coronary heart disease.
When too much LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) circulates in the blood, it can build up in the inner walls of the arteries that feed the heart and brain, explained Dr. Bernard Ashby, an attending cardiologist in the Columbia University Division of Cardiology at Mount Sinai Medical Center and an assistant professor of clinical medicine at Columbia.
Cholesterol can help form a thick, hard deposit (plaque) that can narrow the arteries and make them more inflexible. Ashby referred to this as atherosclerosis. When clots form and block a narrowed artery, a heart attack or stroke can result.
Additionally, people should subscribe to a more Mediterranean diet, eating at least two helpings of fish every week, cooking with olive oil instead of butter and consuming more nuts, legumes, fiber and whole grains.
Oh, and stop smoking. Now.
“Smoking is the number one modifiable risk factor for heart attack and stroke. It’s the thing you can change,” he said, noting non-modifiable risk factors include gender and family history.
Ashby used laymen’s terms to explain heart disease: “It’s a plumbing problem; a build-up of gunk in the pipes, or plaque in the arteries,” he said, adding most heart attacks are caused by plaque buildup. And smoking increases the arterial plaque.
Dr. Olveen Carrasquillo, chief of the division of general internal medicine at the University of Miami Health System, pointed out that cigarette causes about 1 of every 5 deaths in the United States every year. That totals roughly 500,000 deaths annually. So, his perspective on smoking skyrockets well past refraining from this most perilous of nagging habits.
“There should be no smoking in the entire country — in any country,” he said.
Now, for the seven numbers
500,000: The approximate number of Americans who die every year from smoking
100 (or less than) milligrams per deciliter of blood: The ideal LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) level
4: The number of baby aspirin to chew if you believe you’re having a heart attack. Or one adult aspirin. Also, call 911.
25 or higher: The Body Mass Index that means you’re overweight
Below 120: The ideal top number of your blood pressure — the systolic
Below 80: The ideal bottom number of your blood pressure— the diastolic
150: The number of minutes a person should exercise per week — and that’s exercise that elevates your heart rate and elicits sweat.