Knowing your cholesterol levels is an important part of good heart health. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that adults get tested every four to six years, starting at age 20, and more frequently for those with known high cholesterol levels or other chronic health conditions.
Cholesterol is a fatty material that’s produced by your body, and it’s also found in certain foods. While your body does need some cholesterol in order to function properly, having too much, or high cholesterol, puts you at risk for having a heart attack or stroke. The extra cholesterol that isn’t used by your body builds up in blood vessel walls, causing plaque to form and leading to blockages. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), having high cholesterol levels doubles your risk of heart disease.
Your cholesterol can be tested at any time without fasting; however, experts agree that fasting ahead of time produces the most accurate results.
How Is Cholesterol Tested?
Cholesterol is measured during a blood test. Blood is drawn using a needle and then collected in a vile. This normally takes place at your doctor’s office or a lab where the blood is then analyzed.
The test only takes a couple minutes and is relatively painless, although you might experience some soreness or bruising on your arm around the injection site.
Your results may be available within a few days to a couple weeks.
Should You Fast Beforehand?
Your doctor will tell you whether or not it’s necessary to fast. If you are fasting, you’ll most likely be told not to eat for eight to 12 hours before your test. For this reason, cholesterol tests are often scheduled in the morning.
A test that measures all of the different types of cholesterol levels is called a total lipid profile. According to the AHA, doctors recommend only drinking water and avoiding food, other drinks, and certain medications in order to make sure your results are accurate. This is because your low-density lipoproteins (LDL) — also known as “bad” cholesterol — and triglyceride levels may be affected by what you’ve recently eaten.
What else should you avoid? Alcohol. Drinking 24 hours before your test can affect triglycerides.
How to Read Your Results
To understand your cholesterol test results, you’ll need to know the different types of cholesterol that it measures and what’s considered normal, potentially risky, and high. Here is a breakdown of each type. Keep in mind that people who have conditions like diabetes may need to aim for even lower numbers.
Your total cholesterol number is the overall amount of cholesterol found in your blood.
- Acceptable: 200 mg/dL or lower
- Borderline: 200 to 239 mg/dL
- High: 240 mg/dL or higher
Low-Density Lipoprotein (LDL)
LDL is the cholesterol that blocks your blood vessels and increases your risk of heart disease.
- Acceptable: 100 mg/dL or lower
- Borderline: 130 to 159 mg/dL
- High: 160 mg/dL or higher
High-Density Lipoprotein (HDL)
HDL is also called “good cholesterol” and helps protect you from heart disease. This type removes excess cholesterol, preventing buildup. The higher your HDL levels are, the better.
- Acceptable: 40 mg/dL or higher for men and 50 mg/dL or higher for women
- Low: 39 mg/dL or lower
- Ideal: 60 mg/dL or higher
Triglycerides are another type of fat that collects in your body. High triglyceride levels coupled with high levels of LDL raise your risk for heart disease.
- Acceptable: 149 mg/dL or lower
- Borderline: 150 to 199 mg/dL
- High: 200 mg/dL or higher
You want your results to fall in the acceptable ranges. If your numbers are in the borderline or high levels, you will require lifestyle changes and possibly medication. Your doctor may also want to check your levels more often. Talk about a treatment plan that’s right for your needs.