How and When to Have Your Cholesterol Checked
Getting your cholesterol levels checked is an important part of staying healthy. High cholesterol increases your risk for heart disease and stroke, two leading causes of death in the United States.
Knowing your cholesterol status can help you stay in control of your health. Learn about cholesterol screening and why it is important.
Cholesterol is a waxy substance that your body needs to make hormones and digest fats. Your body makes all the cholesterol it needs, but you can also get cholesterol from eating certain foods, such as egg yolks and fatty meats. Having high blood cholesterol can lead to plaque buildup in the arteries, putting you at risk for heart disease and stroke. High blood cholesterol doesn’t have symptoms, which is why getting your cholesterol levels checked is so important.
Learn more about cholesterol screenings.
What age should I get screened for high blood cholesterol?
About 1 in 5 adolescents have an unhealthy cholesterol reading,1 and nearly 93 million U.S. adults age 20 or older have high cholesterol.2 But since high cholesterol doesn’t have symptoms, many people don’t know their levels are high.
Cholesterol should be checked starting early in life—even children and adolescents should have their cholesterol checked.
Cholesterol testing should be done
- Every 5 years for people age 20 or older who are at low risk for cardiovascular disease.3
- More frequently than every 5 years for people with cardiovascular disease risk factors.3
The 2018 ACC/AHA Guidelines recommend that cholesterol management be based on a person’s lifetime cardiovascular risk.1
If your family has a history of early heart attacks or heart disease, or if a child has obesity or diabetes, doctors may recommend screening for high cholesterol more often.
What are risk factors for high blood cholesterol?
Lifestyle, some health conditions, and family history can raise your risk for high cholesterol. Your doctor may suggest you have your cholesterol checked more often if you have risk factors, such as the following:
- A family history of heart disease or high blood cholesterol. You are more at risk of having high cholesterol if other people in your family have it. This may be due to genetics, but it may also be that families share the same unhealthy lifestyle habits. Some people also have a genetic condition called familial hypercholesterolemia, which can cause high levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad,” cholesterol from a young age.
- Diabetes. Type 2 diabetes raises “bad” cholesterol and lowers high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or “good,” cholesterol, raising the risk for heart disease and stroke.
- Older age. As you age, your body can’t clear cholesterol as well as it used to.
- Being male. Men tend to have higher LDL and lower HDL cholesterol levels than women do. But after menopause (around age 55), LDL cholesterol levels in women increase.4,5
- Having overweight or obesity. Excess weight, unhealthy eating habits, and lack of physical activity can lead to high cholesterol.
- Previously having had high cholesterol. If you have a history of high cholesterol, your doctor may want you to keep a closer watch on your cholesterol.
What do I need to know before getting screened?
A cholesterol test is a simple blood test. Your doctor may tell you not to eat or drink anything except water for 9 to 12 hours before the test. The results give you four measurements:1,3
- Total cholesterol. Less than 200 mg/dL is considered normal.
- LDL cholesterol. Less than 100 mg/dL is considered normal. LDL is sometimes called “bad” cholesterol, because it can build up and clog your arteries, eventually leading to heart disease or stroke.
- HDL cholesterol. It is best to have more than 40 mg/dL. HDL is sometimes called “good” cholesterol, because it can help clear arteries of cholesterol buildup.
- Triglycerides. This is a type of fat in the blood. Normal levels are typically below 150 mg/dL.
How can I keep healthy blood cholesterol levels?
Talk to your doctor about your numbers. Your risk of disease depends on other factors, too, in combination with high cholesterol. To keep your cholesterol managed, you should do the following:
- Choose healthy foods. Limit foods that are high in saturated or trans fats, sugar, and sodium (salt). Choose foods high in fiber, such as fresh fruits and veggies, and in unsaturated fats, such as avocados and nuts. Learn more about healthy eatingexternal icon.
- Stay physically active. You should get at least 2 hours and 30 minutes of moderate exercise, such as biking or brisk walking, every week.6 Learn more about physical activityexternal icon.
- Don’t smoke. Smoking damages the blood vessels and greatly increases the risk for heart disease and stroke. If you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you smoke, learn how to quit.
- Take medicine if necessary. A healthy diet and physical activity can help many people reach healthy cholesterol levels, but some people may need medicines to lower their cholesterol. Always take your medicine as prescribed.
Learn more about ways to prevent high cholesterol.
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: Blood Cholesterolexternal icon
Health Finder:Get Your Cholesterol Checkedexternal icon
American Heart Association
- Grundy SM, Stone NJ, Bailey AL, Beam C, Birtcher KK, Blumenthal RS, et. al. 2018 AHA/ACC/AACVPR/AAPA/ABC/ACPM/ADA/AGS/APhA/ASPC/NLA/PCNA Guideline on the Management of Blood Cholesterol: a report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Clinical Practice Guidelinesexternal icon. Circulation. 2019;139(25):e1082–e1143.
- Virani SS, Alonso A, Benjamin EJ, Bittencourt MS, Callaway CW, Carson AP, et al. Heart disease and stroke statistics—2020 update: a report from the American Heart Associationexternal icon. Circulation. 2020;141(9):e139–596.
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Third Report of the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) Expert Panel on Detection, Evaluation, and Treatment of High Blood Cholesterol in Adults (Adult Treatment Panel III) Final Report. NIH Pub. No. 02-5215. Bethesda, MD: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; 2002.
- Ferrara A, Barrett-Connor E, Shan J. Total, LDL, and HDL cholesterol decrease with age in older men and womenexternal icon. Circulation. 1997;96:37–43.
- Carroll MD, Fryar CD, Nguyen DT. Total and high-density lipoprotein cholesterol in adults: United States, 2015–2016. NCHS data brief, no. 290. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics; 2017.
- Department of Health and Human Services. Executive Summary: Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd Edition pdf icon[PDF – 1.2 MB]external icon. Accessed December 16, 2020.