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High Cholesterol: Assessing Your Risk

Have you been told that your cholesterol is too high? If so, you could be heading for a heart attack, also known as acute myocardial infarction, or AMI, or stroke without knowing it. This is especially true if you have other risk factors for heart disease. Get smart about cholesterol and your heart disease risk. This sheet can help you understand your heart disease risk and how your cholesterol level affects it. Talk to your healthcare provider about how to get started controlling your cholesterol.

Why Is High Cholesterol a Problem?

Blood cholesterol is a fatty substance. It travels through the bloodstream. When blood cholesterol is high, it forms plaque. The plaque builds up in the walls of arteries (blood vessels that carry blood from the heart to the body). This narrows the opening for blood flow. Over time, this can lead to coronary artery disease, heart attack, or stroke.

3 Steps to Assessing Your Risk

1. Find Your Risk Factors for Heart Disease

How your cholesterol numbers affect your heart health depends on other risk factors for heart attack and stroke. Check off each risk factor below that applies to you:

  • Are you a man 45 years old or older or a woman 55 years old or older?

  • Does your family have a history of heart problems? This includes heart attack, coronary heart disease, or atherosclerosis.

  • Do you have high blood pressure? Are you on blood pressure medication?

  • Do you smoke?

  • Do you have diabetes?

2. Test Your Cholesterol

Cholesterol testing most often needs no preparation. Sometimes you may be asked to fast (not eat) before your test. A blood sample is taken and sent to a lab. There, the amount of cholesterol in your blood is measured. There are two types of cholesterol in the sample. The first is HDL (“good cholesterol”). The second is LDL (“bad cholesterol”). Cholesterol test results are most often shown as the total of HDL and LDL cholesterol numbers. You may also be told the separate HDL and LDL cholesterol results.

Fill in your numbers below.

HDL cholesterol:                           LDL cholesterol:                         Total cholesterol:                        

3. Set Your LDL Cholesterol Goal

Once you know your LDL cholesterol number, take steps to lower it if needed. Changes to your diet can help lower the amount of cholesterol in your blood. The table below shows you what your target LDL cholesterol goal should be. Your healthcare provider can help you get started on a plan to lower your cholesterol.

If You Have

Start a Cholesterol-Lowering Plan If Your LDL Cholesterol Is

Your LDL Goal Is

No heart disease and fewer than two risk factors other than high LDL cholesterol

160 or more

Less than 160

No heart disease but two or more risk factors other than high LDL cholesterol

130 or more

Less than 130

Definite heart disease, diabetes, or other atherosclerotic disease*

100 or more

Less than 100

*Other atherosclerotic disease may include carotid (neck) artery disease, peripheral (arms or legs) arterial disease, and abdominal aortic aneurysm.


Based on the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) Executive Summary of the Third Report of the Expert Panel on Detection, Evaluation, and Treatment of High Blood Cholesterol in Adults (ATP III), 2001, National Institutes of Health, NIH Publication 01-3670.


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