Accurate or Not? At-Home Cholesterol Tests and Blood Pressure Monitors
The advantages and disadvantages of checking your cholesterol and blood pressure at home.
If you have high cholesterol or high blood pressure (or if you're worried
about having it), you may have been tempted by the many at-home cholesterol
tests and blood pressure monitors currently on the market. The devices promise
quick, accurate results in the privacy of your own home, a boon for busy people
who don't like to sit in waiting rooms. But do they actually work? And are they
worth the investment? Read on to learn which products are worth the money and
which are not.
Home Cholesterol Tests
Approved by the FDA in 1993, home cholesterol tests generally measure the
total fat levels in your blood. A few years ago, some manufacturers also
started producing home cholesterol tests that measure high-density lipoprotein
(HDL), the "good" cholesterol that protects your heart; low-density lipoprotein
(LDL), the "bad" cholesterol which contributes to plaque buildup in the
arteries; and triglycerides.
To use the cholesterol tests, you prick your finger with a small lancet, put
a drop of blood on a piece of paper with chemicals on it, and wait for the
results (usually within 10 minutes or so). In some tests, you can tell your
results by the color of the paper. In others, your result appears on a small
screen -- often within one minute.
The results of home cholesterol tests are about 95% accurate -- very close
to the accuracy of a doctor's (or laboratory's) test.
Home cholesterol tests cost between $14 (for the kind that uses paper
strips) and $125 (for a hand-held automatic cholesterol device that tests total
cholesterol, LDL, HDL, and triglycerides). That may sound like a pretty good
deal, as even the higher-end devices would save you trips to -- and waiting
time at -- the doctor's office or medical laboratory. But the home cholesterol
tests have a number of problems that may not make them a good investment.
First, the most readily available (and affordable) tests only measure total
cholesterol. A full understanding of your cholesterol profile requires
measurements of HDL, LDL, and triglycerides as well.
Second, even if you get a sophisticated cholesterol test, a doctor needs to
review your results in combination with your other risk factors -- such as
family history, nutritional habits, age, and gender -- to really understand
your risk for cardiovascular disease.
Third, and perhaps most important, blood cholesterol -- unlike blood
pressure -- doesn't change on a day-to-day or even week-to-week basis. Doctors
recommend that healthy adults get cholesterol tests every five years; people
with higher cholesterol levels or risk factors for cardiovascular disease may
need to be tested more often. But even then, testing at home isn't really
Bottom line: At-home cholesterol tests may satisfy your curiosity, but
they don't provide enough information to be truly helpful.