Nowadays you can’t even see a doctor without having your blood pressure checked. When the nurse rattles off the numbers, do you know what they mean or what your optimal levels should be? Do you know what the normal ranges are for cholesterol and blood sugar? And what exactly is good cholesterol?
“Unfortunately, too many people go to the doctor only when they have a problem. It’s important to have checkups and know what those results mean,” said Melissa Kalb, a registered dietician with the Faculty and Wellness Program at Ohio State University.
How often you should have a checkup is a matter of debate in the medical industry. A University of Colorado Health Sciences Center survey published three years ago found 65 percent of primary care doctors think yearly checkups are necessary. One thing to keep in mind is that your insurance company may not pay for a checkup every year. But even if you’re feeling healthy, having a periodic checkup is important because it creates a baseline for your health and can “help find possible diseases before they progress into unmanageable measures,” Kalb said.
Cholesterol is measured in milligrams per deciliter of blood (mg/dL). High blood cholesterol is a major risk factor for coronary heart disease and stroke, according to the American Heart Association. Overall, your total cholesterol should be below 200 mg/dL, Kalb said. Levels of 200 to 239 mg/dL are borderline high. Those that are 240 mg/dL and higher are considered high, meaning that a person with this level has more than twice the risk of coronary heart disease as someone whose cholesterol is below 200 mg/dL, according to AHA.
The “bad cholesterol” is called LDL and should be below 100 mg/dL. Borderline high is 130 to 159 mg/dL, high is 160 to 189 mg/dL and very high is 190 mg/dL and above.
The “good cholesterol,” also known as HDL, appears to protect against heart disease and should be over 60 mg/dL. For men, anything less than 40 mg/dL is a major risk factor for heart disease while for women it is less than 50 mg/dL, according to AHA.
Levels of triglyceride, the most common type of fat in the body, are typically high in people who have heart disease or diabetes. The normal triglyceride level is 150 mg/dL, Kalb said.
Blood pressure is the pressure of the blood against the walls of the arteries. It is the result of two forces: one created by the heart as it pumps blood into the arteries and through the circulatory system and the other by the force of the arteries as they resist the blood flow. When your blood pressure is read, the first number is the systolic number (higher), which represents the pressure while the heart contracts to pump blood to the body. The diastolic (lower) number represents the pressure when the heart relaxes between beats. For example, 118 over 72 is 118 for systolic and 76 for diastolic.
Blood pressure below 120 over 80 mmHg (millimeters of mercury) is considered optimal for adults, Kalb said. A systolic pressure of 120 to 139 mmHg or a diastolic pressure of 80 to 89 mmHg is considered prehypertension”and should be watched carefully. A blood pressure of 140 over 90 or higher is considered high. If it seems like your blood pressure is higher at the doctor’s office, you’re not alone – it’s known as “white coat hypertension” and occurs only during doctors’ visits.
Blood sugar tests measure how well your body processes sugar. The American Diabetes Association recommends the fasting plasma glucose test, which is taken after eight hours of fasting. Normal levels for the FPG test are up to 110 mg/dL. Levels between 110 and 125 mg/dL are considered to be risk factors for type 2 diabetes. Diabetes is diagnosed when levels are 126 mg/dL or higher on two different days.
Another test is the glucose tolerance test, which involves having an FPG test done first and then a blood test two hours later after drinking a special glucose mixture. For people without diabetes, blood sugar increases modestly after drinking the glucose solution and decreases after two hours. A normal blood sugar level is lower than 140 mg/dL. Levels that are between 140 and 199 mg/dL indicate you may have prediabetes. A blood sugar level of 200 mg/dL or higher may indicate diabetes.
A random blood sugar test, often given at health clinics, measures your blood sugar at any point in time. A normal random blood sugar level hasn’t been clearly defined but if you’ve recently eaten and your blood sugar level is at its peak, your random blood sugar level shouldn’t be higher than 200 mg/dL, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Amy Beth Graves is a freelance writer from Franklin County.