According to the Centers for Disease Control heart disease is the leading cause of death in men and women. Despite this alarming news, heart disease is controllable and preventable. There are several risk factors for heart disease and most of them can be changed. Let’s take a closer look at some major risk factors and determine goal numbers that count for a healthy heart.
High cholesterol levels increases risk for heart disease. Your goal for total cholesterol is less than 200 mg/dL. The HDL or “good cholesterol” should be less than 50mg/dL for women and less than 40 mg/dL for men. The LDL or “bad cholesterol” goal depends on your overall risk for heart disease and ranges from 160 mg/dL for those with lowest risk to 70 mg/dL for those with very high risk. Triglycerides, a type of fat, are also important to heart health. Triglyceride levels should be less than 150 mg/dL regardless of age or gender. See your doctor regularly to have these levels checked every 5 years beginning at age 20. Men over the age of 45 and women over 50 should have cholesterol levels checked every year.
High blood pressure causes the heart to work very hard and causes the heart muscles to thicken and to become less able to pump oxygen and nutrients to the body. In many people, high blood pressure has no symptoms so it is necessary to have it checked at least once a year and with every healthcare visit if taking medications for blood pressure. Target blood pressure goals include readings less than 120/80 mmHg. Be sure to take your blood pressure medications as prescribed.
Elevated blood glucose (sugar) levels greatly increases the risk for developing heart disease. Non-diabetics should have serum glucose levels checked every 3 years after age 45. Diabetics should monitor blood glucose levels daily and closely adhere to recommendations provided by the doctor. Target fasting blood glucose is less than 100 mg/dL.
Excess body weight is a major risk for heart disease. Extra weight around the waist is known to increase this risk. Doctors often use body mass index (BMI), or waist measurements to determine body fat. Target BMI is less than 25 kg/m2. Target waist measurements are less than 35 inches for women and 40 inches for men.
Tobacco product use and second-hand smoke exposure increases risk for heart disease. The risk for heart disease is 2 – 4 times higher for smokers when compared to nonsmokers. Exposure to second hand smoke also increases overall risk too. Quitting smoking is required to reduce short term and long term heart health risks.
Physical inactivity is another risk factor for heart disease. Plan to get 30 minutes of moderate intensity activity 5 days per week or at least 25 minutes of high intensity exercise 3 days per week. Walking is a low cost and easy way to increase physical activity.
Alcohol consumption is another risk factor for heart disease. Women should limit alcohol consumption to one drink per day and men should not consume more than 2 drinks per day.
Finally, eating a balanced diet low in sugar and sodium is recommended for most Americans. Be sure to follow your healthcare provider instructions carefully and take your medications as prescribed. Know your numbers and take control of your heart health!
– Kim Vickous, MSN, RN
American Heart Association. (2011). Numbers that count for a healthy heart. Retrieved from
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013). February is national heart month. Retrieved from