What’s in a Number? Measuring Blood Pressure, Diabetes Readings & Cholesterol

March 10, 2016


by: The My Medicare Matters Team

What’s in a number? Only calendar pages, if we’re talking about your age. But if we’re talking about your blood pressure, cholesterol level, or blood glucose reading, then it’s a whole other matter. All of these things are measured at your Medicare Annual Wellness visit, which is covered by Medicare Part B at no cost.

The Annual Wellness visit is a one-on-one assessment of your current health status, family/medical history and disease risk factors. It allows your doctor to develop a personalized plan for preventive screenings, so you can avoid diseases and chronic conditions before they develop.

So let’s make sure that when your doctor starts throwing these numbers at you, you’re ready to understand their meaning and ask informed questions! Check out our guide below.

Ideal blood pressure: What is it and what do I need to know?

Ah, yes.  That’s the one with two numbers. “Number X over Number Y.”  Number X is actually called systolic pressure. Number Y is diastolic pressure. According to the American Heart Association, the top number, (systolic) should be under 120. The bottom number (diastolic) should be under 80.

A reading of 120/80 (“one twenty over eighty”) is considered pre-hypertensive, which means you are already in the danger zone of having overly high blood pressure. If the top number reaches 140, you officially have high blood pressure. And anything higher than that is a serious problem–if you get to 180, you’re officially in crisis and need to call 911.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that these readings can vary depending on time and circumstance.  If you show readings of 140 on a regular basis, speak to your primary care provider about taking your blood pressure at home to monitor the situation, or consider going to your local senior center or pharmacy for a screening.

For more information about blood pressure, check out this Center for Disease Control (CDC) fact sheet.

Cholesterol: What is it and what do I need to know?

First, there is “good” cholesterol, otherwise known as HDL.  Having high HDL is good. Second is “bad” cholesterol, also known as LDL.  You want your LDL number to be low. But if you are taking a statin drug, there’s no target number.

And then there are the triglycerides.  Are they good or bad?  The answer is “combined with what?” High triglycerides combined with not enough good (or too much bad) cholesterol can lead to arteriosclerosis (which can cause heart attacks or a stroke).

The fourth number, known as total serum cholesterol, is the same as good cholesterol (HDL) + bad cholesterol (LDL) + 20% of your triglycerides.

As you can see, cholesterol is pretty complicated. This is one of those subjects best labeled “Don’t try this at home.” Consult a medical professional to get your cholesterol tested, and make sure to have a frank discussion of where your numbers are. Your readings need to be evaluated in light of a number of factors–so don’t assume there’s a problem until you have real information.

For more information about cholesterol, check out the CDC’s cholesterol fact sheet.

Blood sugar range: What is it and what do I need to know?

Did you ever hear your parents refer to someone in the family “having sugar?”  That’s how people used to refer to diabetes. When your blood sugar levels are abnormally high, that is generally a sign that you might be diabetic.

Blood sugar has two kinds of measurements: blood glucose level and A1C Level. Blood glucose levels can be measured randomly, or after fasting (fasting levels should be lower).  A reading of 126 or more generally signals a problem.  While random test results will vary depending on when you last ate, any reading of 200 or more is an immediate cause for concern. An A1C test gives you an average score over the last 90 days. A reading of 6.5 or above is cause for concern.  Under 5.7, and you’re no longer in the danger zone for diabetes.

You’ll also hear people refer to being “pre-diabetic.”  That means that they’re at risk for developing full-blown diabetes unless they make a significant lifestyle changes (and even that may not prevent the development of diabetes). Diabetes screenings are one of several free preventive disease screenings offered by Medicare.

Diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death in the United States. Millions of people have it and do not know it. For more information on blood sugar and diabetes, check out the this CDC guide to diabetes.

I understand these numbers now! What’s next?

Congratulations, you now have the info you need to better understand blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar–and you’re ready to hear more about them at your Annual Wellness visit with your doctor. The Annual Wellness visit is one of many preventive health services covered by Medicare.

Prevention strategies (like getting screened for diseases at your Annual Wellness visit, reducing stress, exercising, and improving your diet) are the best possible way to stay healthy as you age.