At WiseGEEK, we're committed to delivering accurate, trustworthy information. Our expert-authored content is rigorously fact-checked and sourced from credible authorities. Discover how we uphold the highest standards in providing you with reliable knowledge.
A cholesterol check is a means of evaluating, via blood test, risk of heart disease and cholesterol levels. The tests are usually performed every five years in men above the age of 45 and in women above the age of 55. They may be performed more frequently on people who already have heart disease, have high blood pressure, are obese, are smokers or who have a family history of high cholesterol or heart disease. Often, unless a known heart disease problem exists, doctors order this blood test during routine physical exams.
Most people who have been asked to get a cholesterol check will need to do so at a separate laboratory. The test usually requires fasting for twelve hours prior, but anyone getting a test should ask doctors or the lab if there are any additional requirements. Sometimes other bloodwork is performed at the same time and there may be other necessary steps before getting blood tests done.
There are some basic things measured in a cholesterol test. These are levels of high density and low-density lipoproteins, total cholesterol score, and levels of triglycerides. Lots of people will receive their scores in the mail a few days or weeks after testing and the doctor who orders the cholesterol check also gets this information.
Each separate measurement will show a number and doctors use these numbers to assess heart disease risk. In general, people want to see high numbers of high-density lipoproteins (HDLs) and low numbers of low-density lipoproteins (LDLs). These are the “good” and “bad” cholesterol counts that are frequently discussed. Total cholesterol score is also an important measurement and triglyceride level is valuable too.
It’s difficult to say what the numbers mean for any one individual person. There are tables that suggest which numbers are bad and good, and which are borderline or dangerous. In general, doctors may look for certain desirable levels and these include a total cholesterol score below 200. LDLs below 70 are optimal but scores up to 129 may be considered near optimal for people who do not have heart disease. HDL levels are best when they are 60 or higher. Numbers on triglycerides are desirable when they are 150 or below.
Patients measuring cholesterol by the numbers should exercise caution. Family history and other risk factors for heart disease may mean certain scores, even if they fall into optimal or desirable range are not appropriate. Given medical history, doctors are skilled at determining if various cholesterol check numbers should be higher or lower.
If readings on a cholesterol check are not in the optimal or desirable range, doctors may schedule a follow up with patients to work with them on ways to address this issue. These may include simple changes to diet or behavior with rechecks after a period of time. When levels put people at extreme risk, physicians may need to prescribe medication to bring the condition under control.