Health Library

Categories > Heart Health > Cholesterol

Your health—by the numbers

Aim for these screening guidelines to score a healthier life

You can tell a lot about a person by looking at her numbers. No, we’re not talking about figures on a bank statement. We’re referring to your biggest asset—your health. The numbers garnered from routine health screenings provide an insightful picture of your physical well-being.

Your vital stats

Your blood pressure, cholesterol levels, blood sugar level and body mass index (BMI) comprise your vital stats. If they’re too high, you may be at risk for heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer, plus conditions like arthritis and gallbladder disease.

So if you’ve been thinking that your numbers are just some mysterious data only your doctor needs to know, it’s time to get savvy. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), these are the figures you need to know:

Blood pressure

Your blood pressure readings measure the force of blood against artery walls. As blood vessels become stiffer with age, your heart works harder to pump blood through the veins and your blood pressure increases.

High blood pressure, or hypertension, can lead to heart disease or stroke. You probably won’t know whether you have high blood pressure until you have it measured.

Optimal: Less than 120/80 mm Hg

Prehypertension: Between 120/80 mm Hg and 139/89 mm Hg

Hypertension: 140/90 mm Hg and above

Check it: At least every two years or as recommended by your doctor.

What you can do: Exercise regularly, eat a balanced diet, restrict sodium, limit alcohol and maintain a healthy weight.

What your doctor may do: If your blood pressure is above 120/80 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg), he or she will recommend lifestyle changes and may prescribe blood pressure–lowering drugs.


Cholesterol is a type of lipid, or fat, produced by your liver and sent through your bloodstream to the rest of your body. It combines with protein to become lipoproteins. High-density lipoproteins (HDL, or good cholesterol) carry cholesterol back to the liver to be processed and secreted from the body. Low-density lipoproteins (LDL, or bad cholesterol) can clog blood vessels and restrict blood flow.

You also take in cholesterol from foods you eat. Too much cholesterol can lead to heart disease.

The AHA advises the following goals to reduce your disease risks:

Total cholesterol:Less than 200 mg/dL
LDL cholesterol:Less than 160 mg/dL for people at low risk for heart disease
Less than 130 mg/dL for people at intermediate risk for heart disease
Less than 100 mg/dL for people at high risk for heart disease
ILDL cholesterol:50 mg/dL or higher (40 mg/dL or higher for men)

Check it: Every five years or more often if it’s high.

What you can do: Limit saturated fat intake to 7 percent to 10 percent of your total daily calories. Keep it below 7 percent if you already have cardiovascular disease (CVD). Aim for less than 300 mg of dietary cholesterol a day, or 200 mg if you have CVD. Eat more fiber, lose excess pounds and exercise regularly.

What your doctor may do: If your total cholesterol is more than 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL), your doctor may prescribe cholesterol-lowering medication.

Blood glucose

Your body converts food into glucose, a sugar that circulates in your blood. The hormone insulin shuttles glucose to cells where it can be used as energy. But sometimes, excess glucose stays in the blood, putting you at risk for diabetes.

On a fasting blood glucose tolerance test:

Normal: 99 mg/dL or below

Pre-diabetes: 100–125 mg/dL

Diabetes: 126 mg/dL and above

Check it: Get a fasting blood glucose tolerance test every three years if you’re age 45 or older or more often as recommended by your doctor. If you have high blood pressure or cholesterol, consider more frequent blood sugar tests.

What you can do: Watch for signs of diabetes, such as excessive thirst, frequent urination, unexplained weight loss, fatigue or slow-healing cuts and bruises. Eat well, exercise regularly and, if you smoke, quit.

What your doctor can do: If your blood glucose levels are above 100 mg/dL, your doctor may counsel you on lifestyle changes or prescribe medication.

Body mass index

Your BMI is a measure of your body fat based on your height and weight. An unhealthy BMI is linked to numerous health issues like heart disease, stroke, osteoarthritis, cancer and diabetes. If you’re overweight or obese, even a weight loss as small as 5 percent can cut your risk of disease.

Underweight: Below 18.5

Normal: 18.5–24.9

Overweight: 25.0–29.9

Obese: 30.0 and above

Check it: Ask your doctor to measure you or calculate your BMI on your own by going to

What you can do: Find healthy nutrition tips based on the revised U.S. Department of Agriculture food pyramid at Exercise regularly to keep your weight in check.

What your doctor can do: If you are overweight, your doctor can recommend a healthier diet or refer you to a nutritionist or support group. Your doctor should screen you for underlying conditions that may be causing your weight gain.

Getting your numbers in optimal ranges is like putting money in the bank. What’s better than collecting interest on—and prospering from—a healthful lifestyle?