Understand your cholesterol levels and new guidelines for PSA testing.

A lipid (fat) that is naturally produced by the liver and also found in certain foods from animal products, cholesterol is needed by our bodies to function properly. It helps create the outer coating of cell membranes while producing vitamin D, hormones and the bile acids needed for digestion.

Since it can’t dissolve in your blood, cholesterol is transported through the bloodstream by carriers called lipoproteins. These particles help form the two types of cholesterol: low-density lipoprotein, or LDL, which is also known as bad cholesterol, and high-density lipoprotein, or HDL, termed good cholesterol. HDL acts to prevent LDL from lodging in the walls of your arteries.

But what happens when too much LDL circulates in the blood? According to the American Heart Association (AHA), this imbalance can result in coronary heart disease, heart attack or stroke if left unchecked. In addition, you could have a high amount of harmful cholesterol and not know it, which makes undergoing a cholesterol test to determine your levels even more important.

The AHA endorses guidelines from the National Cholesterol Education Program, which states that all adults age 20 or older should receive a fasting lipoprotein profile every five years. This test measures total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol and triglycerides, which are the chemical form in which most fat exists in both food and the body.

Blood tests for lab analysis can involve a simple fingerstick screening done by pricking the finger, or drawing a small sample of blood from each arm. Fasting for a nine- to 12-hour period without food, liquid or pills is required to get an accurate reading on each. If you’re unable to fast before the blood sample is taken, only total cholesterol and HDL cholesterol values will be usable. Anything that has been recently consumed can potentially affect levels for LDL cholesterol and triglycerides.

Test reports will display your cholesterol levels in milligrams per deciliter of blood (mg/dL). The National Institutes of Health recommends using the absolute numbers for total cholesterol and HDL cholesterol levels.

Desired levels for each are:

Total cholesterol: Less than 200mg/dL

HDL cholesterol: 60mg/dL and above

LDL cholesterol: Less than 130mg/dL

Triglycerides: Less than 150mg/dL

Your cholesterol numbers should also be evaluated in relation to other risk factors such as age, family history, smoking and high blood pressure. At that point, an appropriate treatment and prevention plan can be developed.