High cholesterol can lead to fatty deposits in your arteries. This raises your risk for a heart attack or stroke. But high cholesterol isn’t something you can see or feel. The only way to know if you have this problem is to get a blood test.
How often do you need a cholesterol test? That depends on whom you ask. Guidelines can be inconsistent. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) says that it might be reasonable to have a lipid test -- that includes cholesterol and triglycerides -- at least every 5 years.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends the test at least every 4 to 6 years starting at age 20, as long as your overall risk of heart disease is low. The CDC gives the same advice. After age 40, the AHA says your doctor should calculate your risk of having a heart attack or stroke in the next 10 years. Your individual risk would help the doctor decide how often you should get screening.
The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) extends its recommendations to kids. They say children should have a cholesterol test for the first time between ages 9 and 11 and then have a repeat test every 5 years after that. Starting at age 20, the NHLBI recommends testing every 5 years. At age 45 if you’re a man or 55 if you’re a woman, you should start checks every two years. At age 65, they recommend everyone start yearly tests.
All the above organizations point out that you may need earlier and more frequent screenings if you have heart disease risk factors, such as family history of high cholesterol or heart disease. Given the lack of consensus and the need for personalized guidance, the best option is to ask your primary care doctor.
If your doctor thinks you need it, they will order what’s known as a lipid panel. It measures LDL cholesterol (the “bad” kind that causes the buildup of fatty deposits in arteries), HDL cholesterol (the “good” kind that helps sweep the bad stuff away), and total cholesterol (a combo of both numbers). It might also measure your triglycerides, which are another kind of blood fat.
When your results come back, be sure to go over them with your doctor. Most doctors consider total cholesterol too high if it’s 200 mg/dL or higher, especially if your HDL (the good stuff) doesn’t make up at least 40-60 mg/dL of that total.
The AHA no longer provides specific cutoffs for healthy and unhealthy cholesterol. They say you should discuss the numbers with your doctor to learn about how they impact your overall risk of heart disease.