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The 4 personal health numbers you need to know

High cholesterol makes fatty deposits in your blood vessels

18 August 2021
6 minute read

By Tamara Oberholster

Numbers aren’t only important when it comes to finances! Keeping tabs on some key personal health numbers can keep you healthy and help you to avoid lifestyle diseases, many of which are known as “silent killers”.

Here are the personal health numbers you should know, the ideal ranges, and how often to check them.

1. Blood pressure

Johannesburg GP Dr Chantelle Scrutton says that when it comes to blood pressure, the average normal value is 120/80mmHg. Low blood pressure isn’t usually harmful, but higher numbers than this can be cause for concern.

If your blood pressure hits 140/90mmHg or higher, you have high blood pressure – and you and your doctor need to monitor it and get it under control.

“Undiagnosed or untreated high blood pressures for prolonged periods can cause microvascular disease. The microvascular system is all the small blood vessels in the body. This system is especially important for the healthy function of the eyes, kidneys, brain and heart.” Once you’ve damaged that system, you can’t reverse it, she says, you can only try to avoid further damage.

“If we intervene in the early stages, however, this can be completely reversible with no impact on long-term function. Prevention is always better than cure,” says Dr Scrutton.

How often should you check it?
Have your blood pressure checked at least once a year. If you discover you have high blood pressure, your doctor may advise more frequent checks, at least until they are sure the condition is properly controlled.

2. Cholesterol

The Mayo Clinic explains that cholesterol is a waxy substance found in your blood and your body needs it to build healthy cells. However, high levels of cholesterol can increase your risk of heart disease.

High cholesterol makes fatty deposits in your blood vessels, making it difficult for blood to flow through your arteries. Sometimes, bits of these deposits break off suddenly, forming a clot that can cause a heart attack or stroke. That’s why it’s important to keep an eye on your cholesterol values.

A total cholesterol test measures three things: LDL, HDL and triglycerides:

  • LDL is known as “bad” cholesterol, and causes hardening of the arteries, heart attacks and strokes.
  • HDL is known as “good” cholesterol. We need it for making amino acids and hormones, and we get it from healthy fats and oils, such as nuts and seeds.
  • Triglycerides are fatty acid chains responsible for fatty disease of the liver and are commonly linked to a diet high in bad fats, such as hydrolysed oils and fried foods.

“We usually measure cholesterol using the unit mmol/L,” says Dr Scrutton, explaining that when you have a cholesterol test, your normal total cholesterol level should be less than 5mmol/L, your LDL should be less than 3.0mmol/L and your HDL should be greater than 1.0mmol/L. Triglycerides should be less than 1.7 mmol/L.

High cholesterol can be hereditary, but it’s often the result of unhealthy lifestyle choices. Improving your diet and doing regular exercise can often help to reduce high cholesterol, although some people may need to take drugs called statins, if advised to do so by their doctor.

How often should you check it?
The Heart and Stroke Foundation gives guidelines for different people:

  • All adults should have their cholesterol tested every few years from age 20.
  • People with diabetes, kidney disease or who are overweight should have their cholesterol levels monitored frequently by their doctor.
  • Those who are at risk or have high cholesterol should have levels checked every six months.
  • Children don’t need to have their levels tested unless they have a family history.

“Cholesterol blood tests should always be done fasting,” says Dr Scrutton – which usually means no food for eight hours before the test. “If you’ve recently eaten, it can give falsely elevated readings.”

3. Blood glucose

Also known as blood sugar, blood glucose is important because high levels may indicate diabetes. Like cholesterol testing, ideally, a blood glucose test should be done “fasted”, which means not eating or drinking anything except water for eight hours (which is why they’re normally done in the morning, before breakfast).

“Normal fasting blood sugar levels are between 3.3 and 6.0 mmol/L,” says Dr Scrutton. “If your levels are high, we will then do formal laboratory assessments to confirm a diagnosis of diabetes.”

She suggests checking your blood glucose once a year, unless you are in an at-risk category, in which case every six months. People at risk for diabetes include people with a family history of diabetes, and people with what’s known as central obesity – which means they carry a lot of weight around their waistlines.

The Heart and Stroke Foundation notes that a healthy diet is one of the best ways to control blood sugar and reduce the risk of developing complications – unless you have Type 1 diabetes, as you will have to use insulin as well.

4. Sleep

Sleep is as important to your physical and mental health as food and water are. We need it to keep our bodies functioning at their best, to restore energy, repair muscle tissue, and even to ensure our brains can do their best work!

Chronic sleep deprivation has also been shown to increase the risk for serious health conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and depression, and even has a negative effect on your immune system.

Take our quiz to see if you’re sleep deprived and try the advice on how to sleep better. If you’re still not getting enough sleep, it’s time to consult with your doctor so you can figure out what’s causing your insomnia and get it sorted out – it really is fundamental!

How often should you check it?
Every day! Try to go to bed and get up at the same time seven days a week and aim to get at least seven hours.

Get your Zzz's and earn additional life cover
Get between 7 and 9 hours sleep a night and go to bed and wake up at the same time and you could earn R500 000 additional life cover with 1Life Pulse! Chat to our skilled advisers about how making the right lifestyle choices means more life cover for your family.

One number that’s up for debate

Body Mass Index(BMI) is a calculation of how healthy your body size is, taking into account your height and weight. A normal BMI is between 18.5 and 25. A BMI between 25 and 30 is considered overweight. A BMI over 30 is considered obese. You can calculate your BMI here.

While it’s often used as a measure of individual health, senior faculty editor, Harvard Health Publishing, Robert H. Shmerling, MD, points out that it can be thrown off by pregnancy or high muscle mass, and it may not be a good measure of health for children or the elderly. It is also based largely on white populations, whereas body composition may vary by race and ethnic group.

Dr Shmerling says that BMI is not a perfect measure of health, but a useful starting point for important conditions that become more likely when a person is overweight or obese. However, he says it’s important to recognise its limitations.

How often should I check it?
Check it today and then decide whether you need to start exercising a bit more and making healthier food choices if it’s a bit high. Thereafter, keep an eye on it once a month, and once you’re within the healthy range, make sure you stay there.

Your mother was right – prevention really can be a cure. Keeping an eye on these numbers, and keeping them in the healthy range, can help you to live a healthier, longer life, and have plenty of energy to do the things you want to do!

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