Cholesterol is a type of fat in your blood. Most cholesterol is made by your body, but eating fatty foods can lead to high cholesterol levels in your blood. Your arteries may clog up with the fatty cholesterol and this can increase your risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
- You cannot tell or feel if you have high cholesterol.
- Having your cholesterol checked is very simple.
- Talk to your doctor or nurse about your overall heart risk and what you can do to keep your heart and cholesterol numbers well controlled.
- With treatment and lifestyle changes, the risks of complications from high cholesterol are much less.
- If you need medication, take it every day as prescribed and ask questions if you don't understand anything.
How do I know if I have high cholesterol?
High cholesterol usually does not have symptoms. The only way to find out if your cholesterol is high is to have a blood test.
When a doctor takes a blood sample they will measure the different types of cholesterol in your blood and also the amount of triglycerides. This is called a lipid (fat) profile.
Your doctor will advise you of the results of the cholesterol tests and what these mean in relationship to your age, sex and general health profile.
|According to New Zealand guidelines an ideal lipid profile is:
||Less than 4.0 mmol/L *
||Less than 2.0 mmol/L *
||Greater than 1.0 mmol/L
|Total cholesterol/HDL ratio
||Less than 4.0
||Less than 1.7 mmol/L
|* Note: These lower targets are appropriate for people who have heart disease, diabetes or kidney disease. Check with your doctor what your target level should be.
Read more about cholesterol testing
What is the treatment for high cholesterol?
If your cholesterol level is too high your doctor may give you medication. Statins are one of the common medications given to help to lower cholesterol and reduce your risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
What else can I do to lower my cholesterol?
You may be able to reduce your cholesterol by making changes to your lifestyle such as:
- Eating healthy foods, including lots of fruit and vegetables, low or reduced fat milk, lean meat, nuts and seeds.
- Avoiding takeaways and deep fried foods, cakes, biscuits, pastries and chips.
- Reducing red meat, cheese and butter.
- Staying at a healthy weight.
- Exercising regularly – being active for at least 30 minutes a day most days of the week.
- Not drinking too much alcohol.
(Image source: bpac)
What your lipid test means for you bpac (NZ)
Lifestyle tips to cut cholesterol Better Health Channel (AU)
Cholesterol management Heart Foundation (NZ)
Knowing your cholesterol levels helps your doctor to assess your overall heart health and see if any lifestyle changes or other treatment is needed.
What levels are measured?
The cholesterol blood test result will give levels of:
- high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol – 'good cholesterol'
- low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol – 'bad cholesterol'
- total cholesterol
- total cholesterol/HDL ratio.
These make up your 'blood lipid profile' – lipids are just another name for the fatty substances in the body and bloodstream.
What do my cholesterol test results mean?
Your doctor will advise you of the results of the cholesterol tests and what these mean in relationship to your age, sex and general health profile. According to the New Zealand guidelines an ideal lipid profile is:
- total cholesterol less than 4 mmol/L *
- LDL cholesterol less than 2.0 mmol/L *
- HDL cholesterol greater than 1 mmol/L
- total cholesterol/HDL ratio less than 4
- triglycerides less than 1.7 mmol/L.
* Note: Lower targets are appropriate for people who have heart disease, diabetes or kidney disease. Check with your doctor what your target level should be.
These cholesterol results are not interpreted on their own – your doctor will take other heart risk factors into account as well. If your cholesterol level is high, you should have regular check-ups every three to six months, depending on the results and your doctor's advice.
Why is a cholesterol test useful?
A cholesterol test is not used to diagnose a disease. Instead, measuring cholesterol and knowing the levels of these lipids provides important information on your health and your long-term risk of heart disease and stroke. Together with other cardiovascular risk factors (such as blood pressure and body weight), your cholesterol results can give your doctor an overall picture of your health.
If the blood test results are not within normal limits, this 'early warning' allows you to make lifestyle changes and consider treatments to lower your future risk of heart attack and stroke. Making changes on the advice of your doctor can greatly alter your risk.
When and where do I go for the test?
Normally, your doctor will ask you to have the cholesterol test at the nearest community diagnostic laboratory, or the practice nurse may be able to take the blood sample.
If you have had recent surgery, a heart attack or been unwell (eg, influenza), it is better to wait at least six weeks before having the test done, for a more accurate result.
Pregnant women should wait at least six weeks after the baby is born to have cholesterol measured, as cholesterol is higher during pregnancy.
How is the cholesterol test carried out?
Some cholesterol tests can be conducted with a finger-prick blood sample, but more detailed testing requires a blood sample collected from a vein in the arm.
You may need to fast (go without food and most drink apart from water) for a specified period (usually at least eight hours) before taking the test. If so, you will be told in advance by your doctor or local laboratory and have your test done first thing in the morning, to minimise the inconvenience of fasting.
You should still be allowed to drink water and take your normal medications – do not stop taking these unless your doctor advises you to (eg, if the medications would interfere with the test result).
People taking blood-thinning medications (eg, aspirin or warfarin), or those with bleeding or clotting problems, should also inform the nurse or laboratory staff of this before the blood sample is taken.