The view is breathtaking. The closets are huge. The kitchen is updated—it’s your dream home. But you’re still not closing on that house purchase without an inspection to look for hidden problems that could be expensive disasters later.
Your body is the home you can’t move out of. Just like an incipient plumbing problem takes the eye of a trained expert to detect, dangerously high cholesterol and blood pressure numbers can sneak under your radar without making you feel sick.
“Cardiovascular diseases are the number-one cause of death of American men and women,” says Janet Brill, PhD, a spokeswoman for the American Heart Association and the author of Cholesterol Down and Blood Pressure Down.
Know your numbers and how to fix them to keep your heart healthy for a lifetime.
Cholesterol and blood pressure are good things. Without them, you wouldn’t be alive. Cholesterol is in your cell membranes and nervous system, the liver uses it to produce bile, and it’s a building block of estrogen and testosterone.
Pressure in the blood is necessary to move oxygen through the body, explains George L. Bakris, MD, past president of the American Society of Hypertension. “To transport oxygen to our organs, the blood needs a certain pressure load to be able to deliver it, not just to the arteries but to the capillaries and the distal parts of our body—our toes, our fingers, our brains,” Bakris says.
Every cell in your body needs cholesterol, but “the problem comes when we have excessive amounts of a certain type of cholesterol floating in the blood,” Brill says.
LDL particles—low-density lipoproteins—carry cholesterol to the cells. Too many of these delivery trucks means extra cholesterol can build up in the inner lining of blood vessels. High-density lipoproteins (HDL) are considered “good” because they act “like little garbage trucks that carry cholesterol to your liver, where your body gets rid of it,” Brill says. An LDL level under 100 is the goal for the general population, and an HDL reading of 60 or higher is desirable.
“Blood flows well along a smooth surface,” says Michael Fleming, MD, past president of the American Academy of Family Physicians. When too much LDL gunks up your blood vessels, it causes that inside surface to become bumpy, he says. Blood doesn’t flow smoothly and platelets can be alerted to fix what they perceive as an injury, leading to blood clots that can cause a heart attack or a stroke.
“Blood pressure is the pulse of life,” Brill says. High blood pressure, however, “is called the silent killer because it is deadly, but you can’t feel it, so you don’t know you have it,” she says.
Blood pressure is measured in two numbers, systolic over diastolic. Systolic is the blood pressure when the heart beats, and diastolic is the pressure when the heart relaxes. So unlike a steady stream of water through a pipe, blood pressure is a series of forceful pulses. “Since blood pressure is pulsatile, the higher the pressure, the more it beats on the side of the artery” and causes damage over time, Bakris says. The American Heart Association recommends keeping blood pressure below 120/80.
Damaged blood vessel walls are more vulnerable to the plaque buildup that raises heart attack and stroke risk. High blood pressure also makes vessels stiff and inflexible over time, stressing the heart and increasing the risk of heart failure.
Through lifestyle choices and medication, if needed, you can bring balance to your cholesterol and blood pressure levels. Achieving healthy numbers is a form of preventive maintenance for your body.
Be aware of your family history but don’t feel doomed by it. “Multiple genes provide risk for hypertension,” Bakris says, but “lifestyle affects the expression of those genes.” Even if you’re at risk of developing high blood pressure, you can, through lifestyle choices, influence how soon you develop it and how high it gets.
Lifestyle also makes an impact if you’ve inherited a tendency to have high cholesterol numbers. Exercising regularly, not smoking and managing your weight can improve both high blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Lowering salt and alcohol intake can also lower blood pressure, and eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats is good for cholesterol levels and heart health.
“It’s important for people to know their numbers because it lets you know if what you’re doing is making a difference,” Fleming says. “These are processes that can be controlled, but you can’t wait until something bad happens.”
Read more about Northside's Heart & Vascular Institute.