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A healthy heart is key to living a long and satisfying life. But cardiovascular disease is still the leading cause of death in the United States, responsible for more than 600,000 deaths each year.

So, what are the signs of heart disease and how can you prevent it? Below, Dr. Ali Ahmad, part of Summit Health's cardiology team, shares some essential information and tips to support a healthy heart at every age.


What is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy substance found in your bloodstream and certain foods (think meat and dairy products). Your body needs it to work properly, but a build-up increases your risk of developing coronary heart disease. Dr. Ahmad encourages his patients to read and learn about their disease risk. "A well-informed patient is the one with the best prognosis," he says.

A lipoprotein panel at the doctor's office or over-the-counter blood testing meter will take the following measurements to determine your heart health:

  • Total cholesterol: The amount of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) combined in your blood
  • LDL cholesterol: Referred to as "bad" cholesterol, it forms a plaque with other substances to coat and "narrow" the arteries
  • HDL cholesterol: The "good" cholesterol that protects your heart by carrying LDL cholesterol back to the liver for removal from the body
  • Triglycerides: Another form of fat that stores excess energy from your diet


Understanding Cholesterol Levels

It's a good idea to know the healthy cholesterol levels for your age and gender. Here’s a helpful guide to what you should aim for (in milligrams):


Total Cholesterol

Optimal Goal: Less than 200, but aim for as low as possible

Borderline: 200-239

Needs Attention: 240 or higher

LDL Cholesterol

Optimal Goal: Less than 100; if coronary artery disease is present, below 70

Borderline: 130-159

Needs Attention: 160 or higher

HDL Cholesterol

Optimal Goal: 60 or higher is ideal 40+ for males and 50+ for females is acceptable

Borderline: N/A

Needs Attention: Less than 40


Optimal Goal: Below 100 is ideal, but less than 149 is acceptable

Borderline: 150-200

Needs Attention: 200 or higher. Higher than 500 needs urgent attention


Heart-Healthy Tips

The decisions we make every day—from the foods we eat to the amount we exercise—impact our health. "There's a lot that you can do outside of doctor visits," Dr. Ahmad says, "and the best tool to manage your health at home is the self-empowerment that comes from knowledge." Here's how to do it:


1. Eat the right foods

"Dietary recommendations should be customized based on the presence of coronary artery disease, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, or other medical conditions," Dr. Ahmad explains. "But for many of my patients, especially those with established coronary artery disease, I recommend they adopt a Mediterranean diet, which is rich in fruit, vegetables, whole grain, beans—it allows for moderate amounts of fish and poultry, and a little red meat." Vegetarian diets are ideal for certain high-risk patients.


2. Move your body

A sedentary lifestyle is a major link to cardiovascular disease, but you can prevent it with regular exercise. Putting aside just 30 minutes for exercise every day is enough to reduce your risk. Dr. Ahmad supports using fitness trackers such as smartwatches to help you monitor your activity levels and sleep. " The foods we eat and the exercise we get matter," he says. "We should all be weighing ourselves every day and counting calories if we're trying to lose weight."


3. Take supplements

Supplements including Coenzyme Q10 and magnesium may help fill gaps in your diet and manage your cholesterol numbers, but don't count on them as your primary source. To be safe, get the green light from your doctor before taking new dietary supplements.