From Thick Blood to Healthy Circulation
How Thick Is Your Blood?
It doesn't get as much attention as cholesterol or blood pressure, but blood viscosity, or blood thickness, plays an important role in heart health. Here's what you need to know.
By Wyatt Myers
Medically Reviewed by Niya Jones, MD, MPH
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If you're at all concerned about heart health, you probably have a good understanding of cholesterol and blood pressure, and likely know your numbers. But there may be another critical blood-related issue to consider — blood viscosity, or blood thickness. According to a health report from Harvard University, people with thicker, more viscous blood may be at a greater risk for a heart attack or for developing heart disease.
That was the case for Sarah Klena, a schoolteacher in Orange County, Fla. Despite living a healthy, active lifestyle, she had a heart attack at age 31. Her doctors suspected blood thickness shouldered part of the blame. "The doctors aren't really sure what caused it, although they did say I have the stickier type of blood," she says. "I was a runner and ate pretty well before the heart attack, so since then I've just tried to concentrate on anything that improves my health, like acupuncture, massage, yoga, meditation, and, of course, running."
Blood Thickness: What You Need to Know
If you didn't know the role blood viscosity plays in heart health, you're not alone. Most people have no idea how thick their blood is, nor do they know how to make it thinner. But it's something that should be on most people's radar for heart health, says Mary Ann Bauman, MD, a national physician spokeswoman for the American Heart Association's Go Red for Women movement.
"For overall heart health, having a normal viscosity would be ideal," explains Dr. Bauman. "Viscosity is an indication of the 'thickness' of the blood, or its resistance to flowing normally. When the blood is thicker, it moves sluggishly; there is an increased risk for red cells to adhere to one another and form clots, and for there not to be enough oxygenation in a given time to areas such as the legs or the brain, and to vital organs. The heart will work harder to pump the needed oxygen to the body." She says that blood viscosity can increase because of many factors, such as certain medications, too many red blood cells, high lipid levels, and other conditions, including diabetes and cancer.
There are tests to check for thick blood, but they're rarely used routinely — "it is usually done in patients who have blood cancers," says Bauman.
However, there are clues that you may be at risk for a blood viscosity issue. If you have other heart health problems like blood clots or high cholesterol, or you're a regular smoker, then the chances are also good that your blood might be more viscous than it should be, notes Sriram Padmanabhan, MD, a cardiologist at the MedStar Franklin Square Medical Center in Baltimore.
What You Can Do About Viscous Blood
The good news is that strategies to improve blood viscosity are not too different from those for general heart health. "Exercise definitely helps the blood flow better by improving the health of the arteries, reducing blood pressure, and reducing cholesterol, among other benefits," says Dr. Padmanabhan. "Quitting smoking goes a long way in improving overall health, reducing the clotting ability of blood and reducing the chance of a heart attack. Reducing fat in our diet, losing weight, keeping cholesterol in check, and keeping blood pressure under tight control all help directly and indirectly in reducing the chance of heart attacks, which is essentially related to blood flow."
When these measures aren't enough, you may need to rely on medication and other guidelines from your doctor to reduce your risk. "In general, the ability of blood to flow easily and to clot appropriately is determined by genetics," adds Padmanabhan. "Some patients will need specific treatments and medications to make their blood flow better." Schedule regular appointments with your doctor to review your risks and protect your heart health.
Video: My Blood Test Results + Thick Blood + Exercise Thins Thick Blood
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