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Improve Your Heart Health

Improve Your Heart Health

Local cardiologist explains that some risk factors are within your control

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), heart disease remains the number one cause of death in the United States, accounting for 928,741 deaths in the U.S. in 2020. Yet people who pay attention to certain risk factors can reduce their chances of developing heart disease.

“Some risk factors–such as a family history of heart disease–are unchangeable,” says Nowwar Mustafa, MD, FACC, a cardiologist with Washington Township Medical Foundation. “Nevertheless, many of the most common risk factors for heart disease can be managed, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, diabetes and smoking. Smoking, fortunately, is in decline, but the combination of smoking and diabetes is particularly lethal because both of them weaken the blood vessels and increase formation of plaque in the blood vessel walls.”

Know the Numbers Related to Reducing Heart Disease

BP Numbers

Blood pressure is generally recorded as two numbers, with the top number (systolic) measuring the pressure in the arteries when the heart contracts. The lower number (diastolic) measures the pressure in the arteries when the heart is at rest. The AHA recommendation for healthy blood pressure is 120/80 or lower, and high blood pressure (hypertension) generally is defined as 140/90 or higher.

Healthy Cholesterol

There are two types of cholesterol: LDL, sometimes called the “bad” cholesterol, that causes fatty buildup in the arteries, and HDL or “good” cholesterol. Triglycerides are another type of fat in the blood. A high triglyceride level combined with low HDL cholesterol or high LDL cholesterol also is associated with heart disease.

Cholesterol is measured in levels of milligrams per deciliter of blood (mg/dL). In general, total cholesterol–which includes LDL, HDL and 20% of triglycerides, should be less than 200 mg/dL. The optimal guideline level of LDL cholesterol is less than 100 mg/dL. For HDL, the recommendation is a level greater than 45 mg/dL, and the higher the better. In some cases, a high HDL level may help counter the effects of high LDL.

Healthy Weight

Your body mass index (BMI) is a useful measure of overweight and obesity. BMI is calculated based on your height and weight. The normal range for BMI is between 18.5 and 24.9. A person is considered overweight with a BMI between 25.0 and 29.0. A person is considered obese with a BMI of 30.0 or above.

Blood Sugar Levels

For people with diabetes, controlling high blood sugar (glucose) levels is an important step in reducing heart disease risks. High levels of blood sugar can cause changes that lead to a hardening of the blood vessels. A normal sugar level is less than 100 mg/dL after not eating (fasting) for at least eight hours. A normal A1C level is below 5.7%. Many doctors consider the A1C test a better indicator because it measures average blood glucose over the past two to three months.

A Good Night’s Sleep

Did you know that sleep is important for a healthy heart, too? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, chronic lack of sleep can increase the risk of high blood pressure and heart disease. Over time, poor sleep can lead to habits that are also related to poor heart health. This includes higher stress levels, less motivation to be physically active, and unhealthy food choices. (“How Does Sleep Affect Your Heart Health”

Lifestyle Changes Can Change Your Numbers

Dr. Mustafa observes that in many cases, people can manage these risk factors by making lifestyle changes. One of those changes is to exercise regularly. The AHA’s basic recommendations for heart-healthy exercise include:

  • At least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity at least five days per week for a total of 150 minutes each week, OR
  • At least 25 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise at least three days per week for a total of 75 minutes per week, AND
  • Moderate- to high-intensity muscle-strengthening activity at least two days per week for additional health benefits, such as maintaining bone mass.

“The most crucial step is to get moving,” he says. “We know that people today lead hectic lives, especially here in the Bay Area, and sometimes it just doesn’t seem possible to exercise every day. I tell my patients to try to at least exercise for two hours each week. That might mean exercising more on weekends and less during the week, but some exercise is better than none at all.”

Deciding to become heart healthier in 2024 might start with a complete physical to learn your overall baseline health. A plan to be mindful of an improved diet, increased exercise and better sleep habits could result in reduced stress and increased heart health.

If you need help finding a primary care physician, visit the Washington Township Medical Foundation website at and click on the tab for “Find a Doctor.”