Life-saving numbers: do you know your vital health stats?
When I was a little girl I loved painting by numbers - remember that? These days I still live my life by numbers - but these aren't about coloured paints. Knowing your numbers for blood pressure, cholesterol and weight can help you keep healthy.
Regular exercise will drop several key 'numbers' - aim towards 30 minutes on five days a week. Reducing salt in your diet can lower blood pressure - we should be aiming for a maximum 6 g of salt (2.4 g of sodium) a day. About 75% of the salt in our diet comes from processed food, so try cooking from scratch.
High blood pressure is the single biggest risk factor for stroke, so the benefits of keeping it down are huge. Low blood pressure can cause light-headedness or fainting, but it's rare. Blood pressure has two measurements, both measured in mm Hg, or millimetres of mercury. The top one (systolic blood pressure) is a measure of the pressure in your arteries when your heart is pumping; the lower one (diastolic pressure) is the pressure when your heart is relaxing between beats. If your blood pressure is consistently above 140/90, your doctor may recommend treatment. If it stays above 160/100, they will definitely want to bring it down to below 140/90 (or 150/90 if you're aged over 80). There are several types of blood pressure-lowering medicines, and most people need a combination of two or three for good control. However, if you have type 2 diabetes, your doctor may be looking to get the level lower still - below 140/80 as standard or below 130/80 if you have evidence of damage to your kidneys, eyes, circulation or nervous system as a complication of type 2 diabetes.
Cholesterol is another major risk factor. We have several different types of cholesterol in our bodies - the main one that does the damage is called LDL, which furs up your arteries and makes them prone to blocking completely. The one you want to have is HDL, which actually protects you from heart attack and stroke. The ratio of your HDL cholesterol and the rest of the cholesterol in your bloodstream determines your risk. As a basic rule, total cholesterol should be below 5 and LDL cholesterol below 3, while the higher your HDL the better (below 1 is low). However, if you've had a heart attack or stroke, or have diabetes (type 1 or type 2) or chronic kidney disease, your doctor will want your total cholesterol below 4 and your LDL (bad) cholesterol below 2. Diet and lifestyle will help, but if these aren't enough your doctor will probably recommend a statin tablet.
Your 'ideal' weight comes from a formula called body mass index (BMI) which compares your weight and height; 19-25 is ideal, 25-30 is overweight and over 30 is obese. By keeping your weight to ideal levels you can greatly cut your risk of type 2 diabetes, heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure and cholesterol, osteoarthritis and even cancer. If you're an 'apple' who tends to store excess weight around your tummy, your risks are higher than someone with the same BMI who's 'pear'-shaped.
The added advantage of losing weight is that it will improve several key numbers together - it brings blood pressure, cholesterol and (if you have diabetes) high blood sugar down as well. Even losing half a stone will make a real difference - as long as you keep it off.
In recent years we have become much more aware of the importance of vitamin D - sometimes called 'the sunshine vitamin' because we make most of our vitamin D in our skins from sunshine. Low levels are linked with higher risk of thinning of the bones (osteoporosis), heart disease, depression and even multiple sclerosis, or MS. Doctors divide the numbers into plenty high enough (usually over 50), not enough (25-50) or seriously low (under 25). To make matters more complicated still, some hospital labs measure in a different way, so the equivalent levels are over 70, 40-70 or under 40.
The Chief Medical Officer recommends that you should take a 5-10 micrograms supplement a day if you're at high risk of being short of vitamin D. That includes all over-65s and under-5s, pregnant and breast-feeding women, people with darker skin and those who don't get outside much. If your doctor thinks you're short, they can check your levels with a blood test and may give a higher dose. Getting 15 minutes a day in the sun from April-October, and eating oily fish, liver and egg yolks also top up your levels. But beware! Any colouring of your skin from sun, including a tan, is your body showing evidence of skin damage. Burning particularly increases your risk of malignant melanoma (link to PIL) - and for children, getting burnt five times increases the risk by 80%. Now that's a number you don't want any part of!
With thanks to 'My Weekly' magazine where this article was originally published.