If you’re over the age of 20, the American Heart Association recommends that you get your cholesterol checked every four to six years. High blood cholesterol levels could put you at risk for heart disease. However, making sense of your cholesterol test results can sometimes be confusing. Here’s how a typical cholesterol test report breaks down:
Cholesterol levels are shown in milligrams per deciliter of blood (mg/dL). Your total cholesterol score is calculated by adding together your levels of “good” high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL), “bad” low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL), and 20% of your triglyceride level. An optimal total cholesterol score is usually less than 180 mg/dL.
LDL cholesterol is known as “bad” cholesterol because it contributes to plaque, a thick buildup which can clog your arteries and reduce your flexibility. Low levels of LDL cholesterol are therefore better for your heart.
HDL cholesterol, which is LDL cholesterol’s “good” opponent, helps to maintain heart health by removing LDL cholesterol from the arteries and carrying it back to the liver to be broken down and passed out of the body. Therefore, it’s better to have higher levels of HDL cholesterol. Low HDL levels, which can result either from genetic factors or lifestyle factors such as smoking or a sedentary lifestyle, can increase your risk of heart disease.
The most common type of fat in the body, triglycerides store excess energy from your diet. While triglyceride levels can vary depending on your age and gender, high levels of triglycerides, especially when combined with high LDL or low HDL levels, are associated with a higher risk of heart attack and stroke.
To get your cholesterol checked, it’s best to have an assessment performed by your family physician or other primary health care provider. Public cholesterol screenings are also available. However, the results from those tests should be shared with your physician in order to properly interpret your numbers.