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preventive health services

Cholesterol Screenings

Why is this important?

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.

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.

Who needs to get their cholesterol checked?

  • All men age 35 and older and all women age 45 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.

People who have high blood cholesterol have a greater chance of getting coronary heart disease, also called coronary artery disease. (In this section, the term “heart disease” refers to coronary heart disease.)

The higher the level of LDL cholesterol in your blood, the GREATER your chance is of getting heart disease. The higher the level of HDL cholesterol in your blood, the LOWER your chance is of getting heart disease.

What are the risks?

The test results may cause a level of anxiety. Screening for and identifying lipid disorders in adults do not appear to have important psychological issues or produce important changes in indices of mental health. This has not been proven, and it may occur in some patients.

If your doctor prescribes drug therapy to lower the lipid levels in your blood you may have various side effects. Make sure you ask your doctor about side effects and be comfortable understanding both the health improvement you receive from these drugs as well possible harms.

There is good evidence that the harms from screening and treatment are small and include possible labeling and the adverse effects associated with lipid-lowering therapy.

The U.S. Preventive Screening Task Force’s (USPSTF) recommendations regarding lipid screening

  • The USPSTF concludes that the benefits of screening for and treating lipid disorders in all men aged 35 and older and women aged 45 and older at increased risk for coronary heart disease substantially outweigh the potential harms.
  • The USPSTF concludes that the benefits of screening for and treating lipid disorders in young adults at increased risk for coronary heart disease moderately outweigh the potential harms.
  • The optimal interval for screening is uncertain. On the basis of other guidelines and expert opinion, reasonable options include every 5 years, shorter intervals for people who have lipid levels close to those warranting therapy, and longer intervals for those not at increased risk who have had repeatedly normal lipid levels.
  • An age to stop screening has not been established. Screening may be appropriate in older people who have never been screened; repeated screening is less important in older people because lipid levels are less likely to increase after age 65. However, because older adults have an increased baseline risk for coronary heart disease, they stand to gain greater absolute benefit from the treatment of dyslipidemia (high levels of blood fat), compared with younger adults.

    Treatment decisions should take into account a person’s overall risk of heart disease rather than lipid levels alone. Overall risk assessment should include the presence and severity of the following risk factors: age, gender, diabetes, elevated blood pressure, family history (in younger adults), and smoking. Risk calculators that incorporate specific information on multiple risk factors provide a more accurate estimation of cardiovascular risk than tools that simply count numbers of risk factors.

How do the cholesterol screening tests work?

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 nine to 12 hours before the test.

There are other blood tests that can check cholesterol, but a lipid profile gives the most information. If you get a lipid profile test, the results will show four (4) numbers. A lipid profile measures:

  • Total cholesterol
  • LDL (bad) cholesterol
  • HDL (good) cholesterol  
  • Triglycerides

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

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

Frequently asked questions about cholesterol screening

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.

What 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)
  • Smoking
  • Diabetes
  • Not getting enough physical activity

What can cause unhealthy cholesterol levels?
Causes of unhealthy HDL cholesterol levels include:

  • Genetic (inherited) factors
  • Taking certain medicines
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Not getting enough physical activity
  • Smoking

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 especially if you have one or more of these other risk factors:

  • A family history of heart disease
  • Hardening of the arteries (called atherosclerosis)
  • Smoking
  • Diabetes
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Not getting enough physical activity