Too much cholesterol (“koh-LEHS-tuh-rahl”) in your blood can cause a heart attack or a stroke. You could have high cholesterol and not know it.
The good news is that it’s easy to get your cholesterol checked – and if your cholesterol is high, you can take steps to control it.
Who needs to get their cholesterol checked?
- All men age 35 and older
- Men ages 20 to 35 who have heart disease or risk factors for heart disease
- Women age 20 and older who have heart disease or risk factors for heart disease
Talk to your doctor or nurse about your risk factors for heart disease. Ask if you need to get your cholesterol checked.
What are the risk factors for heart disease?
Risk factors for heart disease include:
- High blood pressure
- A family history of early heart disease
- Hardening of the arteries (called atherosclerosis)
- Being overweight or obese
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy substance (material) that’s found naturally in your blood. Your body makes cholesterol and uses it to do important things, like making hormones and digesting fatty foods.
You also get cholesterol by eating foods such as egg yolks, fatty meats, and regular cheese.
If you have too much cholesterol in your body, it can build up inside your blood vessels and make it hard for blood to flow through them. Over time, this can lead to a heart attack or a stroke.
How often do I need to get my cholesterol checked?
The general recommendation is to get your cholesterol checked every 5 years. Some people need to get their cholesterol checked more or less often. Talk to your doctor about what’s best for you.
How can I get my cholesterol checked?
Cholesterol is checked with a blood test called a lipid profile. During the test, a nurse will take a small sample of blood from your finger or arm.
Be sure to find out how to get ready for the test. For example, you may need to fast (not eat or drink anything except water) for 9 to 12 hours before the test.
There are other blood tests that can check cholesterol, but a lipid profile gives the most information. Find out more about cholesterol tests.
What do the test results mean?
If you get a lipid profile test, the results will show 4 numbers. A lipid profile measures:
- Total cholesterol
- HDL (good) cholesterol
- LDL (bad) cholesterol
- Triglycerides (“try-GLIH-suh-rydz”)
Total cholesterol is a measure of all the cholesterol in your blood. It's based on the HDL, LDL, and triglycerides numbers.
HDL cholesterol is the good type of cholesterol – so a higher level is better for you.
Having a low HDL cholesterol level can increase your risk for heart disease. Causes of low HDL cholesterol include:
- Genetic (inherited) factors
- Type 2 diabetes
- Being overweight
- Not getting enough physical activity
- Taking certain medicines
LDL cholesterol is the bad type of cholesterol that can block your arteries – so a lower level is better for you.
Causes of high LDL cholesterol include:
- Having a family history of high LDL cholesterol
- Eating too much saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol
There are no signs or symptoms of low HDL or high LDL cholesterol. That's why it's so important to get your cholesterol checked.
Triglycerides are a type of fat in your blood that can increase your risk for heart attack and stroke.
What if my cholesterol levels aren't healthy?
As your LDL cholesterol gets higher, so does your risk of heart disease. Take these steps to lower your cholesterol and reduce your risk of heart disease:
- Eat heart-healthy foods.
- Get active.
- If you smoke, quit.
Ask your doctor if you also need to take medicine to help lower your cholesterol.