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Get Your Cholesterol Checked

Content last updated on:
November 25, 2014

The Basics

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)
  • Smoking
  • Diabetes
  • 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. During the test, a nurse will take a small sample of blood from your finger or arm.

Be sure to find out if there are any special instructions you'll need to follow before the test. For example, you may need to not eat or drink anything (except water or sugar-free drinks) for 9 to 12 hours before the test.

Ask your doctor or nurse if you need to get a blood test called a lipid profile to measure your cholesterol levels.

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
Total cholesterol is a measure of all the cholesterol in your blood. It's based on the HDL, LDL, and triglycerides numbers. 

HDL cholesterol
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
  • Smoking
  • Being overweight
  • Not getting enough physical activity
  • Taking certain medicines

LDL cholesterol
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 high LDL cholesterol. That's why it's so important to get your cholesterol checked. 

Triglycerides
Triglycerides are a type of fat in your blood that can increase your risk for heart attack and stroke. 

Find out more about getting your cholesterol checked.

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:

Ask your doctor if you also need to take medicine to help lower your cholesterol.

To learn more, watch this short presentation on managing cholesterol.

Take Action!

Take Action!

Find out what your cholesterol levels are. If your cholesterol is high, take steps to control it.

Make an appointment to get your cholesterol checked.
Call your doctor’s office or health center to schedule the test. Be sure to ask for a complete lipid profile – and find out if there are any special instructions you’ll need to follow before the test.

Print these questions to ask your doctor about cholesterol [PDF - 121 KB].

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.

  • Check with your insurance provider to find out what’s included in your plan. Ask about the Affordable Care Act.
  • You can still get your cholesterol checked even if you don’t have insurance. To learn more, find a health center near you.

For information about other services covered by the Affordable Care Act, visit HealthCare.gov.

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. Use this shopping list to find heart-healthy foods. Try to:

  • Eat less saturated fat, which comes from animal products (like regular cheese, fatty meats, and dairy desserts) and tropical oils (like palm, palm kernel, and coconut oil).
  • Stay away from trans fats, which may be in baked goods (like cookies and cake), snack foods (like microwave popcorn), fried foods, and margarines.
  • Limit foods that are high in cholesterol, including fatty meats and organ meat (like liver and kidney). 
  • Limit foods that are high in salt or added sugar.
  • Choose low-fat or fat-free milk, cheese, and yogurt.
  • Eat more foods that are high in fiber, like oatmeal, oat bran, beans, and lentils.
  • Eat more vegetables and fruits.

Get heart-healthy recipes and meal plans to keep your cholesterol levels under control.

Get active.
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
  • Swimming
  • Aerobics

Get more tips on protecting your heart with physical activity [PDF - 426 KB].

Quit smoking.
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!

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