Most Americans Don’t Know Crucial Numbers to Predict Their Heart Disease Risk

Most Americans Don’t Know Crucial Numbers to Predict Their Heart Disease Risk
27.03.2024
  • A new survey shows many adults are unaware of important health metrics such as blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
  • Knowing these key health metrics can better help people predict their risk of heart disease, the leading cause of death in the U.S.
  • Experts say simply recording your numbers can help you remember them or allow you to access them easily.

A new survey found that most Americans don’t know key health metrics that could help predict their risk of heart disease—the leading cause of death in the United States.

The survey, conducted last year on behalf of The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, asked one thousand adults nationwide whether they knew their blood pressure, ideal weight, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels.

The highest number of participants—44%—knew their ideal weight. Thirty-five percent knew their blood pressure level, and 16% were aware of their cholesterol number. Only 15% of respondents said they knew their blood sugar level. 

In contrast, when it came to knowing their childhood addresses and best friend’s birthday, percentages came in at 68% and 58%, respectively.

“It’s interesting that so many people remember their social numbers, like their childhood home address, rather than their health numbers,” Laxmi Mehta, MD, director of Preventive Cardiology and Women’s Cardiovascular Health at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, told Health.

Knowing your numbers, Mehta said, can help you understand your chances of developing cardiovascular disease. “Then you take the necessary additional preventative steps should your numbers be in the abnormal range,” she explained. “If your numbers are in the normal range, we want to keep them there.”

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Why These Numbers Matter for Heart Health

Heart disease, which refers to several heart-related conditions, has been the top killer in the U.S. since 1921. And each metric mentioned in the survey questions is associated with it.

Take cholesterol levels. Your body produces this fatty substance to keep cells and organs healthy, but if you have too much in your blood due to diet or genetics, thick deposits called plaque can form on the inside of arteries. Over time, these plaques can restrict blood flow to the heart and other parts of the body.

Blood pressure that’s higher than normal can have a similar effect. When blood pushes too forcefully against the artery walls, they can lose elasticity and become more narrow over time.

Too much blood sugar, the sugar that supplies energy to the body, can damage blood vessels and nerves in your heart.

And maintaining an ideal weight—what the survey defines as an optimal body mass index (a measurement many medical experts agree is an outdated way to measure health)—can help prevent a spike in the other risk factors mentioned: high cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar. 

The target ranges for these metrics are:

  • Cholesterol: Less than 200 mg/dL
  • Blood pressure: When the top number is under 120 mm Hg, and the bottom number is under 80 mm Hg
  • Blood sugar: Between 70–100 mg/dL for a fasting blood glucose test
  • Ideal weight or BMI: Between 18.5 and 24.9

Because the numbers give insight into your risk of cardiovascular issues, it’s important to have regular screenings—the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends blood pressure and weight checks at every doctor’s visit and cholesterol and blood sugar tests every several years—and to be aware of your results.

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“Knowing your blood pressure and tracking it will allow use of the right therapies,” Eric Elgin, MD, chief of the division of cardiology at Lehigh Valley Heart and Vascular Institute, told Health. “The same is true for high cholesterol and diabetes. Weight management is also an important intervention that will help decrease blood pressure, improve cholesterol levels, and help control diabetes.”

People who’ve already had a cardiac event, such as a heart attack, should be especially aware of their health metrics, Nikki Bart, MD, a heart failure and heart transplant cardiologist, told Health

This also goes for people with a family history of heart disease, particularly in a first-degree relative, and those who already have one risk factor, such as high cholesterol. The more risk factors, the higher the likelihood of having a heart event or stroke.

“Keeping all risk factors under control is essential for ongoing heart health,” Bart said.

How to Prioritize Heart Health

Simply recording your numbers can help you remember them or allow you to access them easily.

You can write them down on paper or use an app—whether it’s a general one for note-taking or one meant specifically for tracking and recording measurements such as blood pressure.

Several online calculators, including one on the AHA’s website, can also predict a person’s risk of heart disease, Elgin told Health.

“This information can help guide the aggressiveness of your treatment and medications,” he said.

Beyond taking stock of your levels, it’s important to keep heart health in mind when making daily choices. Not smoking, getting regular exercise, and eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables can all decrease your risk of heart disease.

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“Some factors we can’t control, like our biological sex and our family history,” Donald M. Lloyd-Jones, MD, American Heart Association Go Red for Women volunteer expert, told Health. “That makes it even more important to manage the factors we can control, like the choices we make every day that make a big impact on our overall health.”

Lloyd-Jones recommends having regular discussions with a doctor about how your unique circumstances might influence your risk of heart disease. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, he added, such as how often you should be working out, how you can improve your sleep, or what strategies can you help you quit smoking.

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