What Is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a substance in the blood that helps your body build healthy cells. But too much cholesterol can cause fatty deposits to build up in your blood vessels, leading to clogged arteries and blood clots. Having high cholesterol increases your risk of heart attack or stroke. For this reason, cholesterol testing can be an important part of measuring cardiac health.

The Role of Cardiac and Cholesterol Testing

Cholesterol tests, also included in lipid panels, comprehensive heart panels, or cardiac panel blood tests, are used to screen for unhealthy levels of cholesterol. Since high cholesterol presents no symptoms, the only way to determine if you are at risk is through a cholesterol blood test.

Who should get testing?

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) recommends people begin cholesterol testing between the ages of 9 and 11, with subsequent testing every five years after. If there is a family history of high cholesterol, heart attacks, or strokes, screening may begin as early as age 2.

Once men reach age 45 and women age 55, testing should increase to every one to two years. After age 65, it is important to get tested every year.

Certain medical conditions can also cause unhealthy levels of cholesterol, including chronic kidney disease, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, hypothyroidism, and lupus. Similarly, medications to treat conditions like acne, cancer, high blood pressure, HIV/AIDS, irregular heart rhythms, and organ transplants can increase cholesterol levels.

How often you should get a cholesterol test will be determined based on your age, risk factors, and family medical history.

More Cardiac and Cholesterol Tests

Getting Cardiac and Cholesterol Tests

Cardiac health and cholesterol tests are usually ordered by a doctor. Before prescribing a test, your doctor may ask questions about your diet, activity level, family history, medications you’re taking, and risk factors for heart disease. Your doctor may also perform a physical exam to check for signs of very high cholesterol such as xanthomas, which are skin lesions that contain cholesterol and fat.

You may need to fast for eight to 12 hours before your cholesterol test. If this is the case, your doctor will let you know.

Costs of cardiac and cholesterol testing

The cost of cardiac and cholesterol testing will vary by location and test type. Labs, clinics, and at-home testing companies may accept insurance to cover or lower your cost of testing.

Lab testing fees for a cholesterol panel are typically around $50 with comprehensive heart panels costing upwards of $450, though your actual cost depends on the tests included in the panel, the lab, and your insurance coverage.

Types of sample collection

The sample for a cardiac or cholesterol test will depend on the particular test you’re taking. Blood samples are most often required, although some tests may be performed using saliva.

Getting test results

You may get your test results during a follow-up appointment with your doctor, over the phone, or through online medical charts. A cholesterol test will check your levels of four different substances:

  • Low-density lipoprotein (LDL): This is the “bad” cholesterol that can cause plaque buildup in your arteries, potentially leading to heart disease or a stroke.
  • High-density lipoprotein (HDL): This is considered “good” cholesterol because high levels lower your risk of heart disease and stroke.
  • Triglycerides: This is a type of fat found in the blood that’s used for energy. When combined with high levels of LDL or low levels of HDL, high levels of triglycerides can increase your risk of heart disease or stroke.
  • Total cholesterol: The amount of LDL, HDL, and other lipid components in your blood.

Cholesterol levels are measured in milligrams per deciliter, or mg/dL. According to the American College of Cardiology and American Heart Association Task Force, optimal cholesterol levels are as follows:

  • Total cholesterol: About 150 mg/dL
  • LDL (“bad”) cholesterol: About 100 mg/dL
  • HDL (“good”) cholesterol: Greater than or equal to 40 mg/dL in men and 50 mg/dL in women
  • Triglycerides: Less than 150 mg/dL

If your results show abnormal or unhealthy levels of LDL, triglycerides, or total cholesterol, it’s important to discuss these results with a health care professional who can help you reduce your risk of cardiac disease.


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