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Cholesterol Screening

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 raise your cholesterol by eating foods like egg yolks, fatty meats, and 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 heart disease and heart attack or stroke.

Who is at risk

Low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels tend to increase as people get older. Other causes of high LDL (bad) cholesterol levels include:

  • Family history of high LDL cholesterol
  • High blood pressure or type 2 diabetes
  • Smoking
  • Being overweight
  • Not getting enough physical activity
  • Eating too much saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol – and not enough fruits and vegetables
  • Taking certain medicines, like medicines to lower blood pressure

Causes of low HDL (good) cholesterol levels include:

  • Smoking
  • Being overweight
  • Not getting enough physical activity
  • Eating too much sugar and starch (called carbohydrates)
  • Not eating enough fruits, vegetables, and unsaturated fat (like olive oil)

Symptoms

There are typically no symptoms of high cholesterol. Many times, a person will discover they have high cholesterol because they had a heart attack or stroke.

Go to the emergency room if you have chest pain, shortness of breath, pain in your neck, jaw, upper abdomen, or back, or if you have numbness or coldness in your extremities. You may be having a heart attack.

Go to the emergency room if you have a sudden loss of balance, dizziness, dropping eyelid and mouth on just one side, confusion, slurring words, sudden severe headache or inability to move. You may be having a stroke.

What you can do

Call your doctor’s office to schedule the blood test, especially if you have high blood pressure, are overweight, and/or you smoke. Eat a heart-healthy diet and get plenty of exercise.

What You Should Know About High Blood Cholesterol

Preventive service at no cost

Adults at high risk for coronary heart disease.

Why screening is important

Most people who have high cholesterol don't have any signs or symptoms until they have a heart attack or stroke.

What the screening is

Your doctor will check your cholesterol levels with a blood test called a lipid profile. You may need to fast (not eat or drink anything except water) for 9 to 12 hours before the test.

Risk

Total blood cholesterol

LDL cholesterol

HDL cholesterol

Triglycerides

Normal

Less than 200 mg/dL

Less than 129 mg/dL

Less than 150 mg/dL

Less than 150 mg/dL

Borderline

200-239 mg/dL

130-159 mg/dL

150-199 mg/dL

150-199 mg/dL

High risk

240 mg/dL and over

160 mg/dL and over

200 mg/dL and over

200 mg/dL and over


Total cholesterol is the sum of all the cholesterol in your blood.

The risk of heart disease goes up if you have a high level of LDL cholesterol in your blood because of increased potential for narrowing of blood vessels.

HDL (high density lipoprotein) is considered the "good" cholesterol because it may help decrease the cholesterol buildup in the walls of arteries that causes narrowing of their openings.

Triglycerides are another type of fat in the bloodstream. High levels are a risk factor for narrowing arteries in the body.

Treatment

Eat heart-healthy foods.

  • Eat less saturated fat, which comes from animal products (like cheese, fatty meats, and dairy desserts) and tropical oils (like palm, palm kernel, and coconut oil). Use healthy oils (like olive, peanut, or canola oil) instead.
  • Choose foods with healthy fat, such as olives, avocados, nuts, and fish. Stay away from trans fats, which may be in foods like stick margarines, coffee creamers, and some desserts.
  • Limit foods that are high in cholesterol, including fatty meats and organ meat (like liver and kidney).
  • Limit foods that are high in sodium (salt) or added sugar.
  • Choose low-fat or fat-free milk, cheese, and yogurt.
  • Eat more foods that are high in fiber.

Your doctor may recommend a statin drug to help lower your cholesterol.

Additional tips

Talk to your doctor about adding supplements like niacin, psyllium husk, or L-carnitine to your diet.