How to Interpret Your Cholesterol

Receiving a call from your doctor's office that your cholesterol is high can be rather scary. Let's learn what the numbers in this panel really mean, and how doctors decide when it's time for a medication. 

Sanaz Majd, MD,
January 28, 2016
Episode #206

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After receiving feedback from some of you in regards to the last post, in which I discussed how to interpret a CBC, or Complete Blood Count, I thought it would be useful to continue the series to talking about interpreting another test: your cholesterol panel.

Controlling your cholesterol level is vital to heart health. That’s because cholesterol plays a role in plaque build-up. And if enough of this build-up in the blood vessels exists, it can contribute to clogging of the arteries. This clogging causes diminished blood flow and oxygen to vital organs like the heart and brain, causing a heart attack or stroke, respectively.

Therefore, it’s important to understand cholesterol so that we can help prevent heart disease, the number one killer of both men and women in the U.S

When and How Often Should You Get Screened?

According to the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), an organization that sets evidence-based guidelines for clinicians to follow, the following groups should be screened for cholesterol:

·         All men over the age of 35

·         Women over age 45 with increased risk for heart disease

What are these heart disease risk factors? Having covered them in great detail, you may recall that it includes the following risks:

  • Being male
  • Age (the older the person, the higher the risk)
  • Early family history of heart attack or stroke (first-degree relative females less than age 65 and males less than age 55)
  • Diabetes
  • Hypertension
  • Cigarette smoking
  • Obesity
  • Abnormal cholesterol

For younger people, they recommend screening men age 20 to 35 and women age 20 to 45 only if they have increased risk for heart disease. What about for others? For men age 20 to 35 without any risk factors and for women of any age without any risk factors, they do not make any recommendations due to lack of evidence. It should be said, however, that these recommendations from reviewing evidence in 2008 are in the process of being revised.

They also suggest a frequency of testing of five years for most patients, but earlier with those closer to requiring treatment and later for those with repeated normal cholesterol panels without risk factors for heart disease.

The American Heart Association, on the other hand, recommends cholesterol screening every 4-6 years for all adults age 20 and older.


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