Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance in your blood, made by your body. You also get it from foods you eat.
Too much cholesterol in the blood can cause health problems. If too much of it builds up, blood can't flow to your heart which can cause a heart attack.
More than half of all American adults have unhealthy cholesterol levels. There are two different types of cholesterol that make up your total cholesterol reading.
- HDL (Good) Cholesterol Level
High-density lipoprotein, also known as HDL or "good cholesterol", removes cholesterol from the blood stream. The higher your HDL level, the better. Men's HDL levels should be above 40 mg/dL and women's levels should be above 50 mg/dL. Lower levels can raise your chances for heart disease. Levels higher than 60 mg/dL can lower the chances for heart disease.
- LDL (Bad) Cholesterol Level
Unlike HDL, lower levels of low-density lipoprotein, also known as LDL or "bad cholesterol," are better. LDL leaves cholesterol on your artery walls, creating cholesterol plaque that can clog your arteries. Your goal LDL level should be based on your chances of having a heart attack. This is based on your age, tobacco use, blood pressure and HDL level. Your doctor will also factor in diabetes and family history of heart disease.
Too much or too little of a certain type can affect your health. A cholesterol blood test is used to find out if you have too much cholesterol.
To keep cholesterol levels under control, get them checked regularly. Not being active, being too heavy and eating a high-fat, high-cholesterol diet can lead to high levels of total cholesterol.
The good news is you can help by making healthy food and lifestyle choices such as watching what you eat and avoiding cigarette smoke.
Let your doctor know if high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and heart disease run in your family since all of these can be hereditary. Your doctor may suggest diet and lifestyle changes. He or she can also do tests to help assess your risk and decide if medication is a good choice for you.
A cholesterol test is a blood test that checks your blood cholesterol levels. Your doctor will let you know if you need to fast, or not eat or drink, before the test. The test results will show your levels in milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) of blood.
There are three types of tests:
- Full lipid panel – This is the test most often used to judge the chances of heart disease. It measures total cholesterol, LDL and HDL levels and triglyceride levels.
- Total cholesterol test – This measures the total of all types of cholesterol in your blood to see if the level is normal or high. It is used as often as the lipid panel.
- Direct LDL test – This measures your LDL level only and is used when LDL cannot be measured by the other test for technical reasons.
The goal of all of these tests is the same: to let you know your risk of heart disease. Starting at age 35 for most men and 45 for most women, a cholesterol test is recommended every five years or as directed by your doctor.
While people can vary, most of the time the best levels are:
- Total cholesterol level: Less than 200 milligrams (mg) per deciliter (dL)
- HDL cholesterol level: More than 40 mg/dL for men; more than 50 mg/dL for women
- LDL cholesterol level: Less than 100 mg/dL
- Triglyceride level: Less than 150 mg/dL
Sources: American Heart Association, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), eMedicineHealth, FamilyDoctor.org, MedLine Plus.