If you are age 40 to 75, get your cholesterol (“koh-LEHS-tuh-rahl”) checked regularly. Too much cholesterol in your blood can cause a heart attack or a stroke.
The good news is that it’s easy to get your cholesterol checked. If your cholesterol is high, you can take steps to lower it – like eating healthy, getting more physical activity, and taking medicine if your doctor recommends it.
How often do I need to get my cholesterol checked?
The general recommendation is to get your cholesterol checked every 5 years. Some people may need to get their cholesterol checked more or less often. Talk to your doctor about what’s best for you.
What is cholesterol?
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 get cholesterol by eating foods like egg yolks, fatty meats, and regular 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.
How can I tell if I have high cholesterol?
There are no signs or symptoms of high cholesterol. That's why it's so important to get your cholesterol checked.
How can I get my cholesterol checked?
Cholesterol is checked with a blood test called a lipid profile. During the test, a nurse will take a small sample of blood from your finger or arm.
Be sure to find out how to get ready for the test. For example, you may need to fast (not eat or drink anything except water) for 9 to 12 hours before the test.
There are other blood tests that can check cholesterol, but a lipid profile gives the most information. Find out more about cholesterol tests.
What do the test results mean?
If you get a lipid profile test, the results will show 4 numbers. A lipid profile measures:
LDL (bad) cholesterol
HDL (good) cholesterol
Total cholesterol is a measure of all the cholesterol in your blood. It's based on the LDL, HDL, and triglycerides numbers.
LDL cholesterol is the bad type of cholesterol that can block your arteries – so a lower level is better for you.
HDL cholesterol is the good type of cholesterol. It helps clear LDL cholesterol out of your arteries, so a higher level is better for you. Having a low HDL cholesterol level can increase your risk for heart disease.
Triglycerides are a type of fat in your blood that can increase your risk for heart attack and stroke.
What can cause unhealthy cholesterol levels?
LDL cholesterol levels tend to increase as people get older. Other causes of high LDL cholesterol levels include:
Family history of high LDL cholesterol
High blood pressure or type 2 diabetes
Not getting enough physical activity
Eating too much saturated fat,
fat, and cholesterol – and not enough fruits and vegetables
Taking certain medicines
Causes of low HDL cholesterol levels include:
- 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)
What if my cholesterol levels aren't healthy?
As your LDL cholesterol gets higher, so does your risk of heart disease. Take these steps to lower your cholesterol and reduce your risk of heart disease:
- Eat heart-healthy foods.
- Get active.
- Stay at a healthy weight.
- If you smoke, quit.
- If you have type 2 diabetes or high blood pressure, take steps to manage it.
- Ask your doctor about taking medicine to control cholesterol.
Find out what your cholesterol levels are. If your cholesterol is high, take steps to control it.
Make an appointment to get your cholesterol checked.
Call your doctor’s office or health center to schedule the test. Be sure to ask for a complete lipid profile – and find out what instructions you’ll need to follow before the test. For example, you may need to fast (not eat or drink anything except water) for 9 to 12 hours before the test.
You may also want to print these questions to ask your doctor about cholesterol [PDF - 121 KB]and take them to your appointment.
What about cost?
Cholesterol testing is covered under the Affordable Care Act, the health care reform law passed in 2010. Depending on your insurance plan, you may be able to get your cholesterol checked at no cost to you. For more information about other services covered by the Affordable Care Act, visit HealthCare.gov.
Even if you don't have insurance, you can still get your cholesterol checked. To learn more, find a health center near you.
Keep track of your cholesterol levels.
Remember to ask the doctor or nurse for your cholesterol levels each time you get your cholesterol checked. Write the levels down to keep track of your progress.
Eat heart-healthy foods.
Making healthy changes to your diet can help lower your cholesterol. Try to:
Eat less saturated fat, which comes from animal products (like regular 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
transfats, 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, like oatmeal, oat bran, beans, and lentils.
Eat more vegetables and fruits.
You can also:
- Use this shopping list to find heart-healthy foods.
- Get heart-healthy recipes and meal plans to keep your cholesterol levels under control.
Getting active can help you lose weight, lower your LDL (bad) cholesterol, and raise your HDL (good) cholesterol. Aim for 2 hours and 30 minutes a week of moderate activity, such as:
- Walking fast
Get more tips on protecting your heart with physical activity [PDF - 426 KB].
Quitting smoking will help lower your cholesterol. If you smoke, make a plan to quit today. Call 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669) for free support and to set up your quit plan.
And if you don't smoke, don't start!
- Read about real people who lowered their cholesterol.
- Get tips for making healthy choices while eating out.
- Go for a walk or run with a friend.