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 heart disease
- Hardening of the arteries (called atherosclerosis)
- Being overweight or obese
- Not getting enough physical activity
Read more about preventing heart disease.
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 like 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.
What are the symptoms of high cholesterol?
There are no signs or symptoms of high cholesterol. That’s why it’s so important to get your cholesterol checked.
How often do I need to get my cholesterol checked?
The general recommendation is to get your cholesterol checked every 5 years. Some people may 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.
LDL cholesterol is the bad type of cholesterol that can block your arteries – so a lower level is better for you.
Triglycerides are a type of fat in your blood that can increase your risk for heart attack and stroke.
What can cause unhealthy cholesterol levels?
Causes of unhealthy HDL cholesterol levels include:
- Genetic (inherited) factors
- Type 2 diabetes
- Being overweight
- Not getting enough physical activity
- Taking certain medicines
Causes of unhealthy LDL cholesterol levels include:
- Having a family history of high LDL cholesterol
- Eating too much saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol
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.
Call your doctor’s office or health center to schedule the test. Be sure to ask for a complete lipid profile – and find out what instructions you’ll need to follow before the test. For example, you may need to fast (not eat or drink anything except water) for 9 to 12 hours before the test.
You may also want to print these questions to ask your doctor about cholesterol [PDF – 121 KB] and take them to your appointment.
What about cost?
Cholesterol testing is covered under the Affordable Care Act, the health care reform law passed in 2010. Depending on your insurance plan, you may be able to get your cholesterol checked at no cost to you. For more information about other services covered by the Affordable Care Act,visit HealthCare.gov.
Even if you don’t have insurance, you can still get your cholesterol checked. To learn more, find a health center near you.
Keep track of your cholesterol levels.
Remember to ask the doctor or nurse for your cholesterol levels each time you get your cholesterol checked. Write the levels down to keep track of your progress.
Eat heart-healthy foods.
Making healthy changes to your diet can help lower your cholesterol.
You can also:
- Use this shopping list to find heart-healthy foods.
- Get heart-healthy recipes and meal plans to keep your cholesterol levels under control.
Getting active can help you lose weight, lower your LDL (bad) cholesterol, and raise your HDL (good) cholesterol. Aim for 2 hours and 30 minutes a week of moderate activity, such as:
- Walking fast
Get more tips on protecting your heart with physical activity [PDF – 426 KB].
Quitting smoking will help lower your cholesterol. If you smoke, make a plan to quit today. Call 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669) for free support and to set up your quit plan.
And if you don’t smoke, don’t start!