An easy and important test
High cholesterol usually has no symptoms. That’s why it’s important to have your doctor check your cholesterol levels with a simple blood test.
It may be a "fasting" or "non-fasting" lipoprotein profile. Your doctor will tell you if you should fast before your test. (Fasting usually means not eating, drinking certain beverages and taking medications 9 to 12 hours before the cholesterol test.)
In the test, a health care professional takes a sample of your blood. If additional blood tests are needed, all the samples are usually taken at once. Discomfort is usually minor.
After the blood sample is taken, it’s analyzed in a laboratory, where the levels of HDL cholesterol, LDL cholesterol and triglycerides are measured. (If you don’t fast, only the values for total cholesterol and HDL cholesterol will be usable.) Your test report will show your cholesterol level in milligrams per deciliter of blood (mg/dL).
To determine your cardiovascular risk, your doctor will consider your cholesterol test results in context with your age, sex and family history. Other risk factors, such as smoking, diabetes and high blood pressure, will be considered as well. If your risk remains uncertain, and treatment options are unclear, your healthcare professional may consider other factors and/or request a coronary artery calcium (CAC) measurement to provide greater insight into your risk and help in decision-making.
How often should cholesterol be checked?
The American Heart Association recommends that all adults 20 or older have their cholesterol and other traditional risk factors checked every four to six years as long as their risk remains low. After age 40, your health care professional will also want to use an equation to calculate your 10-year risk of having a heart attack or stroke. You can check your numbers using the AHA’s Check. Change. Control. Calculator to start the conversation with your health care team.
People with cardiovascular disease, and those at elevated risk, may need their cholesterol and other risk factors assessed more often.
Your doctor will explain what your cholesterol levels mean and can discuss treatment options if your numbers are not where they should be.
Where should cholesterol be checked?
It’s best for your primary care doctor to do the test. As noted, your cholesterol levels represent just one of many factors affecting your cardiovascular health. Your primary care physician will have a fuller understanding of your personal and family history, as well as any other risk factors that might apply.
If your cholesterol is checked at a public screening, they may measure your HDL cholesterol and total cholesterol. But if HDL cholesterol isn’t measured, knowing your total cholesterol levels still gives you valuable information. Getting your blood cholesterol, blood pressure, body mass index and fasting blood sugar measured regularly should be part of your overall personal care plan.
If you obtain cholesterol screening results from a source outside of your doctor’s office, be sure to share those with your primary care physician. Additional data points help to establish your cardiovascular risk. This is particularly important for people who smoke, have other health conditions such as diabetes or inflammatory conditions, or have a family history of heart disease, high blood pressure or stroke.