Cholesterol Tests: Are You Getting Tested Often Enough?

If you’re waiting for a symptom, you need to see this.

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Most people prefer to avoid the doctor’s office until something’s wrong—a broken ankle, a sore throat, a stomach ache that won’t go away. But your best health is only possible by making regular visits to screen for hidden problems. One of those sneaky conditions is high cholesterol, or hyperlipidemia.

“High cholesterol has no symptoms,” says Michelle Weisfelner Bloom, MD, a cardiologist at Stony Brook University Medical Center. “The only way you would know your cholesterol is high is if your doctor tested your blood.”

When LDL cholesterol (the so-called bad kind) gets too high, it can leave fatty, wax-like deposits in the arteries that increase the risk of blockages and heart disease, according to the American Heart Association. (Here’s more information about how high cholesterol affects the body.) Of course, this could eventually lead to noticeable symptoms like heart disease, but it’s easier to reverse high cholesterol than it is to manage heart disease or recover from a heart attack or stroke. That’s why catching risky cholesterol levels early on is so important.

To check your cholesterol, doctors will take what’s known as a cholesterol profile or lipid panel, according to Paul Knoepflmacher, MD, a clinical instructor in medicine at The Mount Sinai Hospital. It’s a simple routine test (and you might not even need to fast before a cholesterol test anymore, depending on your personal circumstances).

You should start getting your cholesterol checked arounge age 18, says Rachel Bond, MD, a cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital. “It’s suggested that you get tested once every two years or so. Once you reach 40, it should really be done on a yearly basis.”

If you have certain risk factors for high cholesterol, your doc may recommend checking your cholesterol on a yearly basis before age 40. Risk factors for high cholesterol include the following, according to Dr. Weisfelner Bloom:

  • Having diabetes

  • Having high blood pressure

  • Being overweight or obese

  • Smoking

  • Having a family history of heart disease

To prevent the risk of stroke and heart disease, the National Stroke Association recommends keeping total cholesterol levels below 200. If you’re tested and your numbers are above the target range, your doctor will discuss possible treatments—which may or may not include medication for high cholesterol.

Tweaking your diet and other lifestyle factors can be enough to shrink cholesterol numbers, according to Dr. Bond. (Here’s why exercise helps lower cholesterol and some simple diet rules treat high cholesterol.) “We have the ability to [reduce] our cholesterol numbers, and by doing so, you may avoid the need to be started on a medication.”