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Know Your Health Numbers

Image of clipboard on table with hand writing on patient exam sheet on clipboard next to a Sphygmanometer

Numbers are useful to identify your health status. Key health numbers to know are your blood pressure, blood sugar, blood cholesterol, body mass index (BMI), and waist size.

Monday, March 23, 2015

You use many numbers to identify who you are — your Social Security number, Veteran ID number, phone number and pin numbers to access your bank and other accounts.

Numbers are useful to identify your health status, too. Key health numbers to know are your blood pressure, blood sugar, blood cholesterol, body mass index (BMI), and waist size. These numbers assess your risk for chronic diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes. Finding out these numbers and keeping track of them helps you and your health care team take steps to keep them in healthy ranges.

Blood pressure

Blood pressure is measured as two numbers. The first (top) number measures the systolic pressure. This is the maximum pressure against the artery walls while the heart is pumping blood. The second (bottom) number is diastolic pressure. This is the pressure between heart beats when the heart refills.

Your health care team measures your blood pressure each time you are seen. A device called a sphygmomanometer (sfig’-mo-ma-nom-e-ter) is used. The numbers on the gauge measure your blood pressure in millimeters of mercury (mm Hg).

To diagnose high blood pressure (HBP), your blood pressure should test in the high range on at least two separate patient visits. To confirm a diagnosis of high blood pressure (HBP), your health care team may ask you to measure your blood pressure yourself at home.

Blood Pressure Levels for Adults (mm/Hg)

Normal blood pressure: 
-Less than 120 systolic
-Less than 80 diastolic

-120 to 139 systolic
-80 to 89 diastolic

High blood pressure:
-140 or higher systolic
-90 or higher diastolic

It is important to get your blood pressure checked because it can be high and you may not feel any symptoms. Untreated high blood pressure can lead to a heart attack, stroke, dementia, heart failure, kidney disease and blindness.

Blood sugar

Pre-diabetes and diabetes are diagnosed by checking your blood for high levels of sugar (glucose). Screening for diabetes is vital because the disease may not cause symptoms in its early stages. A fasting plasma glucose (FPG) test is taken on two separate days. If the test comes back high, you are at risk for diabetes (pre-diabetes) or you may already have the disease. Fasting means nothing to eat or drink for at least eight hours before the test.

Follow your VA primary care team’s advice for diabetes screening tests to include specific instructions on taking the test that morning. If blood sugar is not controlled, heart disease, stroke, kidney damage, nerve damage, foot problems and blindness can result.

Fasting Blood Sugar
99 mg/dL and below
Pre-diabetes: 100-125 mg/dL
Diabetes: 126 mg/dL and higher

Blood cholesterol

A blood test called a “Lipoprotein profile” checks your blood cholesterol (lipid) levels. This test can be ordered as a fasting or non-fasting laboratory test. If fasting is ordered, do not eat or drink anything, but water for at least eight hours before the test.
Two much LDL (bad) cholesterol, other fatty deposits and calcium, can make plaque. This can clog the walls of your arteries and slow down, or block blood flow to the heart or brain. Blocked arteries can cause a heart attack or stroke.

Target Blood Cholesterol (mg/dL)

-Total Cholesterol: Less than 200*

-LDL-cholesterol (Bad cholesterol): Less than 130

-HDL-cholesterol (Good cholesterol):
-Greater than 40 for Men
-Greater than 50 for Women

Note: If you have diabetes, check with your health care team about what your target goals should be.

Ways to Track Your Numbers

• Write them on the VISN 8 Healthy Living Calendar, which may still be available at your VA health care facility.

• Record them on the VA’s My HealtheVet web site. Access and click on Vitals & Readings.

• Check the App Store on your smartphone for one or more Apps to track these health numbers.

Waist size

Excess fat around your abdomen rather than your hips and thighs, puts you at a greater risk for heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. Your abdomen is the area above your hipbone and below your rib cage.

One way to tell if you have excess fat in the abdomen is to measure your waist circumference. To do this, place a measuring tape snugly around your waist at your navel. Stand relaxed. Do not pull your stomach in.

Desirable Waist Size:
-Less than 40 inches for men
-Less than 35 inches for women
Body Mass Index—BMI

Body mass index (BMI) is a measure of body fat based on height and weight for adult men and women. The higher your BMI, the higher your risk for certain diseases such as heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, gallstones, breathing problems, and certain cancers.

To find your BMI, use the information below or search for “BMI Calculator” at

Body Mass Index:

Underweight: Less than 18.5
Normal Weight: 18.5-24.9
Overweight: 25-29.9
Obese: 30 or higher

* BMI may overestimate body fat in athletes and others who have a muscular build. It may also underestimate body fat in older persons and others who have lost muscle.

Content Sources: National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases


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