Medical tests often feel opaque to the layman.
While many tests are a simple, binary answer there are others which can only provide guidelines for the person who has received the data.
Of course, your doctor can give you advice based on your lipid test results but most of us want something more.
If you’d rather be able to read the numbers than just take suggestions, you’re in the right place. Read on and we’ll show you how to read your lipid test results and make the changes to your lifestyle needed to combat cholesterol.
What Are Lipid Tests For?
Lipid tests create a profile of the varying cholesterol levels in your bloodstream.
The results you receive will have a few metrics:
- Total Cholesterol
- Low-Density Lipoprotein Cholesterol(LDL)
- High-Density Lipoprotein Cholesterol(HDL)
Sounds confusing, doesn’t it?
The test’s purpose is to help you get an overall snapshot of your cholesterol and blood fat levels. They’re often done as a routine matter, while LDL cholesterol is associated with heart disease it’s also largely asymptomatic until a problem emerges.
You’ve undoubtedly heard people talk about good and bad cholesterol. In this case, LDL is the primary culprit behind the problems we hear about.
Meanwhile, HDL is generally considered to be a good lipid. It’s associated with a lower rate of atherosclerosis, if that name doesn’t sound familiar to you then undoubtedly you’ve heard of plaque building up in the arteries. Plaque build-up is how the condition is generally described to lay people.
Triglycerides make up the rest of the lipids in our bloodstream. High triglycerides are the root of many health conditions and it’s inclusion with cholesterol testing isn’t an accident.
In essence, a lipid test gives you an overall measure of risk based on the amount of fatty compounds in your bloodstream.
That’s easy enough, but actually reading the results of a lipid test forms the problem for the average person.
In some cases a few other metrics will show up in the test:
- Very Low Density Cholesterol(VLDL)
- Total Cholesterol:HDL Ratio
The latter number can be calculated with standard test results, while VLDL is generally included in the LDL category in a regular lipid test.
It’s All About the Numbers
In the past, it was common to lump all cholesterol together for a physician to draw their conclusions.
A greater understanding of how the role that cholesterol plays in the bloodstream and heart health has changed that.
In any case, the measurements are in milligrams per deciliter(mg/dL).
In general, your total cholesterol should exist within a narrow band. Anything under 200mg/dL is considered good, while anything at or above 240mg/dL would put you in the high-risk category.
Total cholesterol only gives a small piece of the puzzle, however, and its use as a standalone diagnostic statistic has taken a backseat to the separation of LDL and HDL numbers.
LDL numbers are high-risk when they reach 190mg/dL. Even beneath this threshold, a doctor will often give you advice on how to lower this vital metric of coronary health.
Triglyceride levels are a little bit different, while they can contribute to artery hardening plaque they’re also related with a wide variety of different medical conditions, ranging from Type 2 Diabetes to high blood pressure.
Triglyceride levels have a wider range than cholesterol levels. In general, under 150mg/dL is healthy. Anything over 200mg/dL is too high and those who fall over the 500mg/dL mark are seriously at risk for a number of health conditions.
HDL, on the other hand, has a lower threshold which is supposed to be maintained. Anything 60mg/dL and up is good, while those who have levels underneath 40mg/dL are more prone to complications.
The VLDL metric, while not always used, tends to be derived from the above numbers since it’s hard to calculate it directly. The higher that your total triglyceride level is, the less accurate the measure becomes. As a general rule a range of 5m/dL to 40mg/dL is considered normal.
HDL to Total Cholesterol Ratios
As long as you have the hard numbers in your hand, you’ll be able to calculate the HDL to Total Cholesterol ratio.
If, for instance, you had a relatively high total cholesterol content of 240mg/dL and a good HDL reading at 60mg/dL your ratio would come out to 4:1. The higher the ratio of HDL to total cholesterol, the higher your risk for heart disease.
For some time, doctors used this metric as a primary way to decide how to proceed with a patient. Doctors recommend keeping the ratio under 5:1 to avoid the complications that come from cholesterol.
If you look back at our example, this individual appears to still be in good health despite being on the border of the “high risk” category with their blood’s total cholesterol content.
For the layperson who’s just trying to discover if they have a cholesterol problem, this ratio can provide a good overall snapshot. You should, of course, always consult with a physician before making any major changes.
Getting Your Lipid Test Results
Lipid tests are performed with a simple blood draw, usually done right in the doctor’s office or in a lab if the doctor requests you fast first.
In most cases, your doctor will inform you if anything is out of hand but it’s always good to be able to read the numbers yourself.
If anything seems extreme in the testing you may wish to get a second opinion. Just like every other process out there sometimes the machines fall out of calibration and require servicing by medical instrument companies. You can learn more about this service online if the nuts and bolts of the process fascinate you.
For the most part, your doctor will be able to present you with the results of your test in a few days and the two of you can consult on a strategy to proceed.
Know the Numbers, Know the Risk
Like any medical test, getting your lipid test results can seem complicated. With all of the acronyms and numbers on the page it can feel confusing.
It’s not nearly as hard as you think. While you should take your physician’s advice, the layperson can get a great measure of their overall risk from the HDL to Total Cholesterol ratio.
So, dig out that paperwork and crunch some numbers. It’s time to put this knowledge to the test!