Understanding Your Cholesterol Test Results
Your health care provider may send you for cholesterol tests, either as a part of a standard check-up or because he or she suspects you may be at risk for developing heart disease. But do you know what the cholesterol test results actually mean? Read on to learn how to interpret the numbers.
Why Do I Need a Cholesterol Test?
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance. Your liver makes all the cholesterol your body needs. But you take in more cholesterol from certain foods, such as those from animals. If you have too much cholesterol in your body, it can build up in the walls of your arteries (as "plaque") and eventually harden. This process, called atherosclerosis, actually narrows the arteries, making it harder for blood to get to your heart.
Unfortunately, high cholesterol doesn't cause symptoms. In later stages of atherosclerosis, though, you may suffer angina -- severe chest pain from lack of blood flow to the heart. If an artery gets totally blocked, a heart attack results. A routine blood cholesterol test is a far better way of finding out what your cholesterol level is.
What Does a Cholesterol Test Measure?
In addition to measuring the total cholesterol in your blood, the standard cholesterol test (called a "lipid panel") measures three specific kinds of fat:
- Low-density lipoproteins (LDL). This is the "bad cholesterol," the main cause of plaque build-up, which increases your risk for heart disease. In general, the lower the number, the better. But LDL cholesterol is only one part of a larger equation that measures a person’s overall risk of having a heart attack or stroke. For years, guidelines focused on specific target numbers for individuals to achieve to lower their risk. The most recent guidelines focus on a person’s overall risk and, based on that risk, recommend a certain percentage of LDL reduction as one part of a strategy for preventing serious heart and vascular problems.
- High-density lipoproteins (HDL). This is the "good cholesterol." It transports bad cholesterol from the blood to the liver, where it is excreted by the body. Your HDL is another part of the equation that identifies the risk of a cardiovascular event. In general, the higher the number the better, although, as with LDL, the emphasis has shifted from specific target numbers to strategies for reducing the overall risk.
- Triglycerides. Another type of fat in the bloodstream, triglycerides are also linked to heart disease. They are stored in fat cells throughout the body.
What Do Cholesterol Test Numbers Mean?
If you have a lipoprotein profile, it's important to look at all the numbers from the cholesterol test, not just the total cholesterol number. That's because LDL and HDL levels are two primary indicators of potential heart disease. Use the information below to interpret your results (with the help of your doctor, of course). This will help you get a better idea about your risk for heart disease.