You probably know that high cholesterol is a major risk factor for heart disease. But at what age should you start checking your cholesterol? Many assume you only need to worry about cholesterol screenings later in life.
However, the guidelines recommend starting cholesterol testing early on. Detecting and addressing high cholesterol as early as possible can significantly reduce your risk of cardiovascular problems.
This article will review the latest cholesterol screening recommendations for people of all ages and explain what the test entails.
When Should Children and Teens Get Screening?
Current guidelines say children should have their first cholesterol screening between ages 9-11, with a repeat screening every five years after that. Additionally, all kids should have another cholesterol check between ages 17-21.
These childhood cholesterol tests are important because plaque can accumulate in the arteries during adolescence. Detecting issues early allows time to make diet and lifestyle changes before cholesterol levels get out of control.
Some children need screening even earlier than age nine if they have risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Such risk factors include obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, or a history in the family of high cholesterol and heart problems.
Children with chronic health conditions such as kidney disease or HIV may also need earlier screening. Talk to your pediatrician about whether your child needs cholesterol testing before age nine.
Cholesterol Screening Guidelines for Adults
Adults not considered high risk should start general cholesterol screening around age 20, with repeat screening every 4-6 years. Once you hit middle age, around 45-65 years old, screening should happen more frequently – every 1-2 years based on current recommendations.
After age 65, an annual cholesterol check is advised. For adults under 45 with low heart disease risk, getting your cholesterol tested every 4-6 years allows your doctor to establish a baseline and monitor for any changes.
Screening in your 40s and 50s is essential for picking up subtle cholesterol increases that often emerge with aging and lack obvious symptoms. Detecting borderline high cholesterol at this stage gives you time to improve your levels through lifestyle tweaks before medication may become necessary down the road.
Annual screening from age 65 on is recommended because cholesterol naturally increases as we age. Even if you’ve had normal cholesterol most of your life, it may increase in your senior years. Getting checked every year allows quick action to address these age-related cholesterol increases that could go unnoticed.
Certain factors warrant more frequent cholesterol screening at any adult age:
- Family history of early cardiovascular disease or events such as heart attack or stroke before age 55. Those with a concerning family history should get checked every 1-2 years starting at age 20.
- Being overweight or obese – excess weight strains the cardiovascular system, so overweight adults may need their cholesterol monitored more closely.
- Diabetes diagnosis – adults with diabetes are at increased risk for cholesterol problems and heart disease. They should be screened at least annually.
- High blood pressure – can indicate circulatory issues that may be complicated by high cholesterol, warranting aggressive screening.
- Smoking – directly damages the heart and blood vessels in ways that interact poorly with high cholesterol. Smokers should get screened every 1-2 years.
- Chronic inflammatory conditions, such as lupus, psoriasis, and rheumatoid arthritis, are linked to higher heart disease risk and may necessitate more frequent cholesterol checks.
What Does Cholesterol Screening Entail?
Fortunately, getting your cholesterol checked is fast and easy. It simply involves having blood drawn, either through a finger prick or from your arm. The test can be done without fasting, making it convenient to get your screening at your annual physical.
The laboratory will conduct tests on your blood sample to determine levels of:
- Total cholesterol
- LDL or “bad” cholesterol
- HDL or “good” cholesterol
For an initial baseline reading, nonfasting lipid panels are typically sufficient. But if your results are concerning, your doctor may want to follow up with a fasting lipid panel for accuracy.
Understanding Your Cholesterol Numbers
When your screening results return, what cholesterol levels are considered normal versus problematic? Here are key benchmarks:
- Under 200 mg/dL is desirable
- 200-239 mg/dL is deemed borderline high
- Over 240 mg/dL is viewed as high
- Under 100 mg/dL is optimal
- 130-159 mg/dL is viewed as borderline high
- Over 160 mg/dL is deemed high
- 60 mg/dL and above is optimal
- 40-50 mg/dL is borderline low
- Under 40 mg/dL is concerning
- Less than 150 mg/dL is viewed as optimal
- 150-199 mg/dL is considered borderline elevated
- 200-499 mg/dL is deemed high
Your doctor will look at all these numbers to determine your heart disease risk. In some cases, borderline readings may warrant medication or lifestyle changes. Trends in your numbers over time also provide important insights.
What If You Have High Cholesterol?
If lifestyle changes don’t bring your cholesterol into a healthy range, medication may be recommended. Statins are a commonly prescribed medicine used to lower LDL cholesterol. But lifestyle tweaks can go a long way, too. Here are some ways to improve your cholesterol through diet and exercise:
- Reduce saturated and trans fats
- Eat more produce high in soluble fiber
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Exercise 30-60 minutes most days
- Quit smoking and reduce alcohol
Work with your doctor to create a plan that will lower your cholesterol and is tailored to your situation. Sometimes, small changes consistently implemented into your daily habits can improve your numbers over time.
Trust Imperial Center Family Medicine for Cholesterol Screening and Guidance
Cholesterol screening is important at all stages of life. Current guidelines recommend starting screening between ages 9-11 for children and continuing every few years after that. For adults, testing should happen routinely throughout adulthood, depending on your age and risk factors.
High cholesterol often has no apparent symptoms, so the only way to determine your levels is to get checked. Imperial Center Family Medicine’s knowledgeable team specializes in cardiovascular risk assessment and cholesterol management.
We offer convenient cholesterol testing and work collaboratively with patients on prevention and treatment plans for lifelong health. Contact us today at 919-873-4437 or online to discuss your cholesterol screening needs.