It depends on several factors.

Your general health, family history, medical profile and lifestyle can all have an impact on your cholesterol.

People who are over 40 should typically have it checked every five years.

If you’ve been told you have high cholesterol, you will most likely need to have it checked more frequently, as part of your regular cholesterol review (usually at least once a year).

Your doctor will be able to tell you if you need to have your cholesterol checked.

On this page, we’ll discuss:

Who should have their cholesterol checked?

Some people will need have their cholesterol levels checked on a regular basis. For instance, if you:

  • are over 40 years old you should have your cholesterol checked every five years
  • are a first-degree family member of a person diagnosed with familial hyperlipidaemia (FH) your doctor may suggest that you have your levels checked (children with one or more parents with FH should have their levels checked before they turn 10 years old)
  • have a family history of cardiovascular disease or a cholesterol-related condition
  • are overweight
  • have hypertension (high blood pressure)
  • have diabetes
  • have a condition which can lead to high levels of cholesterol in the blood such as kidney disease, pancreatitis or underactive thyroid
  • are already on cholesterol lowering medication you should have your levels checked every 12 months

Your doctor can arrange a simple blood test for free through the NHS.

Why is it important to know my cholesterol level?

High cholesterol does not usually produce obvious symptoms. Therefore it is unlikely that you will know whether or not you have high cholesterol without having a blood test carried out.

High levels of low density lipoproteins (LDL), also known as ‘bad’ cholesterol, combined with insufficient levels of high density lipoproteins (HDL), also known as ‘good’ cholesterol can cause a buildup of deposits on artery walls.

The imbalance of so-called ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cholesterol can lead to serious health complications such as angina, heart disease and stroke.

If you are aware of your cholesterol levels then you can take action to keep them at healthy levels, by making changes to your lifestyle or diet.

In cases where someone has high cholesterol which does not respond to lifestyle changes, medication may be recommended.

How is a cholesterol test carried out?

In most instances a healthcare professional will obtain a sample of blood which is then sent to a laboratory for analysis.

In some cases your doctor may ask you to fast (as in not eat any food) for a period of 10-14 hours prior to the test being carried out.

A cholesterol screening can also be carried out via a capillary test, usually as a pinprick to a finger.

What does my cholesterol result mean?

A cholesterol reading is given in millimoles per litre (mmol/L). When your cholesterol levels are checked there are several results that provide different indications.

Here is a table of the different cholesterol measurements and what they mean:

 

Measurement

What it indicates

Ideal result

Total Cholesterol (TC)

The total amount of cholesterol in your blood

5mmol/L or less

Non HDL-Cholesterol

‘Bad’ cholesterol levels. It is calculated by taking away the HDL-cholesterol levels from the total cholesterol.

4mmol/L or less

LDL-Cholesterol (LDL-C)

The amount of LDL cholesterol

3mmol/L or less

HDL-Cholesterol (HDL-C)

The amount of ‘good’ cholesterol

Men = over 1 mmol/L

Women = over 1.2 mmol/L

TC:HDL ratio

Total cholesterol divided by the HDL-C

A ratio greater than six is classed as high risk.

The lower the number, the lower the risk

Triglyceride (TG)

Indicates how well the body is able to remove fat from the blood after a meal

Fasting sample = 1.7 mmlo/L or less

Non-fasting sample = 2.3 mmlo/L or less

 

The above table serves only as a guide. If you fall into a high risk category, your doctor will be able to tell you what levels you should be aiming for.

What factors cause high cholesterol?

Diet and lifestyle can have a direct impact on your cholesterol levels.

The following factors can increase the amount of bad cholesterol found in your blood or upset the ratio of good and bad cholesterol:

  • Smoking
  • Eating a diet which is high in saturated fat
  • Leading a sedentary or inactive lifestyle
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Having a high waist circumference

As we have already mentioned, some medical conditions such as diabetes, kidney disease and liver problems can have an effect on cholesterol. There are also certain types of medication that can raise cholesterol such as immunosuppressants, steroids, beta blockers and antidepressants.

Cholesterol levels also rise the older we get, and women going through the menopause may notice a change in their cholesterol levels.

What can I do to maintain a good level of cholesterol?

It is possible to lower your cholesterol without medication.

Eating a healthy and well balanced diet can contribute to maintaining or achieving good levels of cholesterol. For example:

  • including plenty of vegetables, fruits and wholegrain cereals,
  • reducing the amount of alcohol you drink
  • and avoiding processed foods

can all be of benefit.

Eating foods high in saturated fats can contribute towards high cholesterol, so it’s important to stick to your reference intake (20g per day) as much as possible.

Smoking can increase cholesterol too. If you smoke, your doctor will encourage you to give up smoking, whether you have high cholesterol or not. Quitting a habit like smoking can be difficult but there are methods available to make the process easier.

Regular physical activity can provide numerous health benefits, one of which is increasing levels of ‘good’ cholesterol found in the blood.

We’ve written elsewhere that you don’t need to have a gym membership in order to increase the amount of exercise you do and increase your level of physical activity. For instance, putting more physical effort into cleaning the house, getting off the bus a stop earlier than you need to or parking your car further away from your destination can  all help.

If you want to learn more about using diet and exercise to either lower your cholesterol levels or maintain good cholesterol levels, speak to your GP.

If your doctor is concerned about the results of your cholesterol test they may suggest a course of cholesterol-reducing treatment known as statins. Your doctor will check your cholesterol levels on a regular basis if you commence a course of treatment.

You can find more information on cholesterol testing at the Heart UK website.