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Many Americans unaware of important heart health numbers: survey

Jesse Trelstad / Forum News Service file A sensor measures blood pressure in this file photo at Essentia Health in Fargo, North Dakota. Researchers surveyed adults about key risk factors for heart disease, and 77 percent understood that blood pressure matters.

Even though most Americans are worried about dying from a heart attack or stroke, few people know their numbers when it comes to basic risk factors for cardiovascular disease like blood pressure or cholesterol levels, a recent survey suggests.

"We have known for a long time that the overwhelming majority of heart disease is preventable if you treat blood pressure and you treat high cholesterol and you treat diabetes," said Dr. Steve Nissen, chairman of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.

"But it's still the leading cause of death," Nissen said in a phone interview. "Complacency is the enemy here."

For the study, published on the Cleveland Clinic's website, researchers surveyed a nationally representative sample of 1,002 adults by phone in September 2016. They found that a majority of participants did know some key risk factors for heart disease.

For example, 77 percent understand that blood pressure matters and 67 percent know weight is important.

Slightly more than half of participants also correctly identified "bad" LDL cholesterol and body mass index, a measurement of weight relative to height, as risk factors.

But the devil is in the details people don't know.

Just 4 in 10 people knew a healthy blood pressure reading was less than 120/80.

Even though heart rate isn't an important risk factor for calculating the risk of heart disease, 59 percent of participants incorrectly identified this as a factor that influences risk.

When it comes to weight, 70 percent of people knew their own weight off the top of their head. However, only 30 percent of them knew their waist circumference and just 18 percent knew their BMI.

Even when people knew a healthy BMI is one way to lower the risk of heart disease, just 23 percent of participants understood that a person is considered overweight with a BMI of 25 or more.

And with waist circumference, only 34 percent of participants knew that carrying fat around the stomach area, sometimes known as an "apple shape" body, is the most dangerous for heart health.

People were also confused about how cholesterol levels influence the risk of heart disease. Only 12 percent of them knew screening for cholesterol should start in early adulthood, and most people incorrectly identified triglycerides as cholesterol when they are a type of fat in the blood.

Most participants also didn't grasp the connection between diabetes and heart disease; 73 percent of respondents didn't know heart disease is the leading cause of death for people with diabetes.

While some people might not know these numbers because they're young and healthy, others who do have some risk factors for heart disease may have been told and forgotten the details, said Dr. Deepak Bhatt, executive director of interventional cardiovascular programs at Brigham and Women's Hospital Heart and Vascular Center in Boston.

"It is probably more important for someone with abnormal measurements to be aware of the cutoffs for normal versus abnormal than for someone whose numbers are all good," Bhatt, who wasn't involved in the survey, said by email.

Still, every person should know how these numbers change over time, and look for early warning signs of measurements creeping closer to unhealthy levels, Bhatt said. There are many smartphone apps that can help track this, or a simple notebook works just fine.

That's because when certain numbers start moving in a direction that could become a problem in the future, there are often still things patients can do to prevent health issues from developing.

"Doctors may not prescribe a pill when certain numbers like weight or blood pressure creep up but remain in a healthy range, but they might recommend lifestyle changes," Nissen said. "For example, we may ask you to change your diet or get more exercise."