If you’ve purchased a fitness tracker recently, you might be eager to know what condition your heart is in and how to improve its future health. There are a number of ways to check your heart health and how well you are looking after this vital organ.
“You can get a free NHS health check in England if you’re aged 40-74 years, giving you an individual risk score for developing heart and circulatory disease, which includes a cholesterol, Blood pressure and BMI test. Similar schemes area available in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland,” says Julie Ward, Senior Cardiac Nurse at the British Heart Foundation.
There are also some simple ways which will enable you to not only see how well you are looking after your heart but also allow you to monitor positive changes.
It’s important to keep an eye on your waist circumference as it’s an indicator of your visceral fat level which is bad news for your heart. “The higher the ratio of waist circumference to the hip circumference the more fat is stored around the waist or abdomen,” says dietitian Tracy Parker. “Measure the circumference of your hips at the widest point of your buttocks. For your waist circumference you need to measure around the waist, midway between the bottom of your ribs and top of your hips.”
Then it’s a simple calculation: waist measurement divided by hip measurement – it doesn’t matter if you measure in inches or centimetres. High risk is defined as a waist-hip ratio above 0.90 for males and above 0.85 for females.
When you are given your blood pressure measurements it can be confusing – what do the numbers actually mean? The top or first number represents the pressure when your heart is contracting to push blood into your body, while the bottom or second number is the pressure when your heart is relaxing and refilling with blood. If it is above the recommended numbers it means the heart muscle is pumping harder than it should be simply to push the blood around your body. This thickens the heart – which is a muscle – and means it can’t pump efficiently. The blood being pushed around is also doing so at a less ideal level and as it rushes through the arteries it can damage the artery walls. Ideally your blood pressure should be 120/80.
“High blood pressure means that your blood pressure is constantly above recommended levels. Unless your doctor says otherwise, blood pressure should be below 140/90 mmHg,” says Julie. And it’s possible to have no outward signs of a problem. “High blood pressure affects around 16 million people in the UK. An estimated seven million of those are undiagnosed, as there are rarely any symptoms,” explains Julie. “You may only find out you’ve got a problem when you have a heart attack or stroke.” Which is why high blood pressure contributes to around half of all heart attacks and strokes in the UK.
Triglycerides are a type of blood fat which enter the blood stream after a meal – normally your liver will clear them out of your blood. The test is usually done before eating in the morning for a ‘fasting’ reading. You should aim to have a level below 2.0 mmol/l. “High fat intake does not equal high triglyceride levels,” adds John Kennedy, Training Specialist for Freeletics. “Rather it is a matter of calorie intake and the triggering of “fat-storing” hormones such as insulin. What we eat greatly influences triglyceride levels.” Triglyceride levels are increased by trans and saturated fats as well as food which are high in carbohydrates or drinking alcohol.
Cholesterol is a fatty substance which is produced naturally in the liver and circulates in our blood. We need it – but there are two types and we need to keep the ‘bad’ kind in check. Low-density lipoproteins (LDL), or sometimes known as non-high density lipoproteins (non-HDL), is known as ‘bad’ cholesterol because if you have too much it can stick to the walls of your blood vessels and can stay there. This can clog up the blood vessels, causing them to become stiff and narrow which can lead to a heart attack or stroke. Meanwhile high-density lipoproteins (HDL) are known as ‘good’ cholesterol because it gets rid of ‘bad’ cholesterol from your blood vessels. It takes the cholesterol that you don’t need back to the liver where it is broken down to be passed out of your body.
“The ratio from HDL to LDL is important,” says John. “LDL levels should be 3mmol/L or less for healthy adults, while an ideal level of HDL is above 1mmol/L. A lower level of HDL can increase your risk of heart disease.” Your ‘total cholesterol level’ is calculated by taking one from the other and 4mmol for total cholesterol is a good figure to aim for.
This level looks at the amount of sugar in your blood before you have eaten in the morning, which is why when you are tested for this you need to skip breakfast until the blood test is done. It should be between 4 and to 6 mmol/L at fasting and less than 8 mmol/L two hours after eating. This is an important measurement if they are high you can take steps to reduce them to prevent damage to your body. “The hormone insulin allows sugar in your bloodstream to enter your cells, where it can used for energy,” explains Dr Mike Knapton, from The British Heart Foundation. “If you don’t have enough insulin, sugar stays in the bloodstream and over time, high blood sugar levels damage your blood vessels. This can cause other problems, like coronary heart disease, kidney disease and diabetic eye disease.”
For more information on how to look after your heart visit The British Heart Foundation www.bhf.org.uk. If you’re in any doubt about your heart’s condition, always visit your nearest health practitioner in person for a check up.