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Six Measures of Heart Health

As a follow-up to my outline of the three most important determinants of cardiovascular health, this post reviews six reliable measures of how healthy your heart is.

Clearly, it's not practical or even possible for some people to track all six measures on a regular basis. But tracking one or even a few of the following measures once a year is recommended if you want to have some idea of how healthy your heart is.

1. Waistline

The amount of adipose tissue (fat) that's found around your waistline is strongly correlated with your risk of suffering a cardiovascular accident.

A study published in Circulation indicates that having even a small amount of fat in the abdominal region increases risk of experiencing heart failure.

A study published in Stroke indicates that even when hypertension, diabetes, a sedentary lifestyle, and smoking are accounted for, people with excess fat tissue around their midsection have a higher-than-average risk of experiencing a stroke.

You can calculate your body mass index to track your body fat relative to your height and weight, but it's far easier to keep an eye on your waistline. The less excess fat tissue you have around your belly, the lower your risk of cardiovascular disease.

2. Blood Pressure

Chronic high blood pressure (systolic or diastolic) can injure the inner walls of your blood vessels, which can trigger scar tissue formation that can contribute to clogged vessels. Repeated bouts of injury and scar tissue formation can decrease the lumen size of your blood vessels, which elevates your risk of suffering congestive heart failure or a stroke.

For a comprehensive look at blood pressure and what you can do to promote a healthy range now and over the long term, please view:

Understanding Blood Pressure

3. Blood Sugar

Having a chronically high blood sugar level is like having thick molasses or maple syrup clogging up your circulatory system. Over time, high blood sugar leads to less delivery of oxygen and nutrients to your cells, and less removal of carbon dioxide and other wastes from your cells.

In short, chronic high blood sugar increases your risk of experiencing nerve damage, congestive heart failure, stroke, and all of the other health challenges associated with diabetes.

For a comprehensive look at blood sugar and blood insulin, including recommendations on how to keep both in healthy ranges, please view:

Blood Sugar & Insulin: The Essentials

4. Cholesterol

Eating plenty of good cholesterol can lead to protection against heart disease, while regular consumption of damaged cholesterol can increase your risk of heart disease. Please note that I'm not referring to HDL and LDL, which, contrary to popular belief, are not types of cholesterol.

For a detailed look at major points that you need to know about cholesterol, which ratios to watch, and healthy ranges for the key ratios, please view:

What Most Doctors Won't Tell You About Cholesterol

5. Homocysteine

Homocysteine is an amino acid that your body makes from another amino acid called methionine. Your body obtains methionine from protein-dense foods like sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, most nuts, eggs, fish, and other flesh meats.

Normally, homocysteine found in your blood gets converted into two substances called SAMe (S-adenosyl methionine) and glutathione. Both SAMe and glutathione have health-promoting effects on your body. Specifically, SAMe helps to prevent depression, arthritis, and liver damage, while glutathione acts as a powerful antioxidant and detoxifying agent that helps to slow down aging.

When your body is not properly nourished, it may not be able to efficiently convert homocysteine into SAMe and glutathione; the result is an increase in the amount of homocysteine that circulates around in your blood.

And a high blood level of homocysteine increases your risk of cardiovascular disease through a number of mechanisms. For a detailed look at this topic, please view:

Homocysteine: One of the Best Objective Indicators of Your Health Status

6. C-Reactive Protein

C-reactive protein is a protein that is found at elevated levels in your blood whenever your body experiences inflammation. Put another way, C-reactive protein is a highly sensitive marker that indicates how much inflammation exists in your body.

Many people associate inflammation with various sprain/strain injuries. Though a swollen joint is created by inflammation, the reality is that your body is always in a state of inflammation, just to varying degrees depending on all of your food and lifestyle choices. That's right - some of the foods that you eat may be causing chronic, low-grade inflammation in your circulatory system that is slowly contributing to injured blood vessels and heart disease.

Generally, nutrient-rich plant foods like vegetables, legumes, and fruits help to reduce inflammation throughout your body, while animal foods (including dairy) that are cooked at high temperatures tend to increase inflammation in all of your organ systems.

C-reactive protein serves as a marker for inflammation, but it also appears to play direct roles in increasing the probability of developing heart disease. More specifically, C-reactive protein increases the rate of plaque buildup in your arteries, as well as the likelihood of these plaques breaking apart. C-reactive protein also increases the risk of your arteries narrowing and your blood clotting up.

How to Use This Information

Clearly, all you need to monitor the amount of fat tissue that exists around your waistline are your eyes and your hands. If you have some excess fat tissue around your mid-section, I recommend that you gently knead/palpate through it with your hands so that you're able to distinguish between fat tissue and the layers of your skin. Women who have been pregnant and all people who have been overweight may always have what feels like excess skin around the waistline - this extra mass does not correlate with an increased risk of heart disease. It's fat tissue around the waistline that increases your risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

You can monitor your blood pressure with a sit-down device at a local pharmacy or with a portable gadget, but I generally recommend having your pressure taken by a licensed practitioner who does it the old fashioned way. Blood pressure is most accurately assessed by watching the needle of the sphygmomanometer and noting when the needle starts to flutter as it comes down, and when the needle stops fluttering. Practitioners are trained to note the top and bottom numbers when they first hear beats and when they stop hearing beats, respectively. But there's often a slight delay between your true systolic and diastolic levels and when a practitioner hears their cues through a stethoscope, so the most accurate readings are those that rely on observing the needle of the sphygmomanometer.

Blood sugar and cholesterol profile (including triglycerides) are routinely assessed with annual blood checkups. If you'd like to monitor your blood insulin level as well, you may have to ask your physician to add this to the requisition that goes to the lab.

Homocysteine and C-reactive protein are tests that you likely need to ask your physician to have done, as they're not typically included in routine blood tests. The test for C-reactive protein is often called "high-sensitive C-reactive protein."

As alluded to earlier, it's not necessary to track all six measures listed above to have a good idea of how healthy your heart is. Just monitoring your waistline and blood pressure provides a decent idea of how you're doing. If you prefer to have more data and your life and health care circumstances permit, you might consider having a blood test for one or more of the other measures on an annual basis, or even once every few years.

Please remember: You should spend the bulk of your time and energy on a heart-healthy lifestyle. My experience has been that some folks can get caught up with monitoring their health to a point where the stress of monitoring is likely worsening their health. If you have to choose between tracking one of the measures listed above and doing something that's actually good for your health - like getting needed rest, exercising, or preparing a healthy meal - always choose the health-promoting action.

To review the three most important determinants of cardiovascular health, please view:

Three Ways to Keep Your Heart Healthy

 
 

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