The 6 Numbers a Woman Needs to Know to Protect Her Heart

Heart disease is a leading killer for women, but knowing these numbers could potentially save your life.

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Heart disease has long been considered a condition that affects more men than women, but that's not actually the case. In fact, heart disease is the leading killer of women in the United States, and is responsible for one in every four deaths. The statistics are the same for men.

The most common form of heart disease is coronary artery disease (CAD), characterized by hardening or blockage of the arteries that supply blood to the heart. Although the condition affects between 6 and 7 percent of women in the US, heart disease isn't inevitable for everyone.

Certain risk factors, like age and a family history, can't be changed, but there are other ways to lower your risk. High cholesterol, obesity, smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure, lack of exercise and an unhealthy diet all contribute to an increased likelihood for heart disease.

Ignoring the risk of heart disease can be dangerous. We spoke with Vinayak Manohar, MD, a cardiologist with Mercy Health Saint Mary's in Grand Rapids, Michigan, about the six most important numbers for a woman's heart.

Knowing your numbers is the first step in protecting your heart. "You'll want to see a primary care physician to get to know your numbers," Dr. Manohar says. "Oftentimes, health screens will do basic labs to check cholesterol levels, blood pressure, blood sugar levels and body mass index."

Medically reviewed in January 2018.

Blood pressure range

2 / 7 Blood pressure range

High blood pressure, a reading above 130 mm Hg systolic or 80 mm Hg diastolic, can increase your risk for stroke, heart attack, heart failure, kidney failure, dementia, vision loss and sexual dysfunction.

Elevated blood pressure levels can damage your arteries. Overtime, this can lead to CAD.

Blood pressure levels are affected by age, gender, family history, race, weight, habits—like smoking and alcohol consumption—and conditions like diabetes and high cholesterol.

High blood pressure is usually symptomless, so regular screenings are important. Beginning at age 20, people with regular blood pressure, a reading below or equal to 120/80, should be checked at least once every two years. If your blood pressure is higher than normal, you may be screened more frequently.

It's possible to lower blood pressure levels. Speak with your healthcare provider about the best course of treatment, which may include a combination of a healthy, low-salt diet, more physical activity, stress management and medication.

Total blood cholesterol levels

3 / 7 Total blood cholesterol levels

Diabetes, obesity, unhealthy eating habits and a sedentary lifestyle can all increase your risk for high cholesterol, another risk factor for heart disease.

Cholesterol is a waxy substance produced and used by the body to build cells. Cholesterol itself isn't bad—in fact, your body relies on it. Too much cholesterol, however, can be. High cholesterol can contribute to the narrowing of your arteries, and over time, increase your risk of heart attack and stroke.

The American Heart Association recommends adults, beginning at age 20, have cholesterol levels checked every four to six years. Recommendations by the US Preventive Services Task Force are more lenient. This group suggests screenings begin at age 45, but may be recommended as early as age 20 for women with higher risks for heart disease.

Using cholesterol readings and other measures of heart health, your doctor will assess your risk of developing cardiovascular disease within the next ten years. Patients with a 7.5 percent or higher likelihood of developing heart disease within that period may be prescribed medication and become eligible for more frequent screenings.

In addition to medication, losing weight, getting more physical activity and adopting a diet low in saturated fat can also help lower these levels. Without treatment, high levels of total cholesterol can increase your risk for stroke and heart attack. This is especially true for women.

"If total cholesterol is abnormal, women are at a three times higher risk [for a deadly coronary event], when compared to men," Manohar says.

High-density lipoprotein (HDL) levels

4 / 7 High-density lipoprotein (HDL) levels

Total cholesterol is just one way to measure cholesterol levels. Blood tests can also measure the amount of high-density lipoprotein (HDL)—good—and low-density lipoprotein (LDL)—bad—cholesterol levels.

HDL cholesterol helps carry LDL cholesterol out of the arteries and back to the liver, preventing a buildup in the arteries. As a general rule, the higher your HDL reading is, the better. An HDL reading above 60 mg/dL is considered optimal; levels below 40 m/dL are lower than desirable.

Your genes affect your cholesterol levels, but other factors can lower these numbers, too. A smoking habit, obesity, an unhealthy diet and too little physical activity can sabotage your good cholesterol levels.

Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) levels

5 / 7 Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) levels

Excess LDL, or bad cholesterol, can increase your risk of arterial buildup. When too much of the waxy substance finds its way into the arteries, it causes the tube-like structures to narrow, making you more susceptible to a stroke or heart attack.

In some cases, cholesterol levels can be managed with lifestyle changes, like adopting a healthy diet, getting more exercise and kicking the smoking habit. In some instances, these interventions are not enough.

LDL readings help inform treatment, so knowing them is important. Optimal levels are below 100 mg/dL and those above 190 mg/dL are considered very high. According to the most recent guidelines released in 2013, anyone with readings above this threshold will likely be prescribed a statin, medication that helps lower cholesterol levels.

Medication may also be prescribed to those with LDL levels between 70 mg/dL and 189 mg/dL who have a 10-year risk for CVD that's 7.5 percent or higher. If your LDL levels fall within this range, but your 10-year risk is lower than 7.5 percent, your doctor may still recommend a statin if other risk factors for heart disease are present.

Blood sugar levels

6 / 7 Blood sugar levels

Your glucose or blood sugar level is the amount of sugar in your blood. Glucose is the body's main energy source, but elevated levels can increase your diabetes risk.

Diabetes is a condition that affects the way the body uses blood sugar. Lack of physical activity, the foods you eat, hormonal changes, physical and emotional stress and your weight can affect blood sugar levels.

Diabetes—and prediabetes—are also risk factors for heart disease. "Type 2 diabetes is a particularly nasty risk factor for women," Manohar says. "While men [with diabetes] are twice as likely to have a coronary event, women are actually three times more likely."

Beginning at age 44, you should have your glucose levels checked every 3 years. If you are overweight or have been diagnosed with high blood pressure, your doctor may recommend earlier or more frequent screenings. There are a number of different tests.

  • Glycated hemoglobin test (A1C): This blood test measures average blood sugar levels over a two to three month period. Levels below 5.7 are considered normal. A reading of 6.5 or higher on two separate tests is indicative of diabetes.
  • Random blood sugar test: For this test, a blood sample is taken at a random time. Levels of 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) or above suggest diabetes.
  • Fasting blood sugar test: This blood sample is taken after an overnight fast. Levels below 100 mg/dL (5.6 mmol/L) are normal. If your fasted glucose levels are 126 mg/dL (7 mmol/L) or greater on two tests, you will likely be diagnosed with diabetes.

Blood sugar levels can be managed with a combination of healthy lifestyle changes, like a well-balanced diet and regular exercise, and medication. Ask your doctor about the best treatment options for you.

Body mass index

7 / 7 Body mass index

Body mass index (BMI) is a rough indicator of the amount of fat on a person's body. A normal or healthy BMI falls between 18.5 and 24.9. A body mass index between 25 and 29.9 is considered overweight, and anything above 30 is categorized as obese.

As BMI increases, so do the risks for heart disease. Obesity is also a risk factor for other conditions, like diabetes, arthritis, lung and liver disease and certain cancers. Body mass index is calculated based on your height and weight, and can be accurately measured by your healthcare provider.

Overweight and obesity can be treated with dietary modifications. Healthier food choices, a reduction in calories and better portion control can help reduce weight and BMI. Physical activity can also help promote weight loss and, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, is a regular part of a healthy lifestyle.

If diet and exercise efforts prove unsuccessful, medications may be prescribed for certain patients to help with the initial stages of weight loss. Bariatric surgery is another weight loss option. If your BMI is too high to be healthy, speak with your healthcare provider about the best weight loss interventions for you.

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