Cholesterol is different from most tests in that it is not used to diagnose or monitor a disease but is used to estimate risk of developing a disease — specifically heart disease. Because high blood cholesterol has been associated with hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis), heart disease, and a raised risk of death from heart attacks, cholesterol testing is considered a routine part of preventive health care.
Cholesterol is tested at more frequent intervals (often several times per year) in patients who have been prescribed diet and/or drugs to lower their cholesterol. The test is used to track how well these measures are succeeding in lowering cholesterol to desired levels and in turn lowering the risk of developing heart disease.
Cholesterol testing may be carried out more frequently for those who have one or more risk factors for heart disease.
Major risk factors include:
- Cigarette smoking
- Age (men 45 years or older or women 55 years or older)
- Hypertension (blood pressure of 140/90 or higher or taking high blood pressure medications)
- Family history of premature heart disease (heart disease in an immediate family member—male relative under age 55 or female relative under age 65)
- Pre-existing heart disease or already having had a heart attack
- Diabetes mellitus