The cholesterol test

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Every adult should know his or her cholesterol numbers.

Knowing your cholesterol levels could help put your mind at ease if you find they are in the healthy range.

Or it could motivate you to improve your health and get those numbers down if they are too high. Unhealthy cholesterol levels could be a warning of hazards to your heart.

Numbers to know

So what are the numbers to shoot for? According to the National, Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI):

  • Total cholesterol should be below 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL). A level of 240 mg/dL or more is too high—it carries more than twice the risk of heart disease as a level below 200 mg/dL. Numbers between 200 mg/dL and 239 mg/dL are considered borderline high.
  • HDL (high-density lipoprotein, or good) cholesterol is too low if it is less than 40 mg/dL for a man or 50 mg/dL for a woman. The higher this number is, the better. Levels at 60 mg/dL or above can help protect against heart disease.
  • LDL (low-density lipoprotein, or bad) cholesterol is best kept under 100 mg/dL. Levels at 160 mg/dL to 189 mg/dL are considered high, and levels above that are considered very high. The more LDL you have, the greater your risk of heart disease, according to the NHLBI.
  • Triglycerides (another type of fat in the blood) are also best kept as low as possible. Less than 150 mg/dL is considered normal, 150 mg/dL to 199 mg/dL is considered borderline high, 200 mg/dL to 499 mg/dL is considered high, and 500 mg/dL or above is considered very high. In combination with low HDL levels or high LDL levels, having high triglycerides may increase the risk of heart attack and stroke.

When to test

Starting at age 20, everyone should have cholesterol tested at least every five years, recommends the NHLBI. But you may need the test more often if your doctor thinks your cholesterol levels need closer monitoring.

A blood test called a lipoprotein profile measures your total cholesterol as well as LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels. This test is done after you have fasted for about 9 to 12 hours.

If you haven’t fasted, you can’t have a lipoprotein profile, but you can have another blood test that measures only your HDL and total cholesterol levels. If this test shows that your total cholesterol is 200 mg/dL or more, or your HDL is less than 40 mg/dL, you will need to be tested again with the lipoprotein profile so your doctor can get a more complete picture of your heart disease risk.

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