Lipid Panel Test Overview
A lipid panel test is a blood test that measures levels of lipids, which are fats and fatty substances, in the bloodstream. This information is important in helping assess a person's risk of developing cardiovascular diseases, including atherosclerosis, hypertension, heart disease, heart attack and stroke, as well as evaluating the effectiveness of treatments meant to help lower that risk.
About lipid panel tests
Lipid panel tests measure the total amount of key lipids traveling through the bloodstream. These lipids make that journey by attaching themselves to specific proteins in the blood, which creates a lipid-protein package called a lipoprotein. It is these lipoproteins that lipid panel tests analyze, measuring levels of the following types:
- Total cholesterol
- LDL (low-density lipoprotein), also commonly known as "bad cholesterol"
- HDL (high-density lipoprotein), or "good cholesterol"
Measures levels of cholesterol and triglycerides to assess risk for heart disease
How lipid levels can affect cardiovascular health
Cholesterol and triglycerides are necessary in certain amounts for health and well-being, since they perform important functions within the body. Cholesterol is needed to help build cells and manufacture hormones. LDL carries cholesterol throughout the body to perform those functions. HDL is the clean-up lipoprotein, picking up excess cholesterol and carrying it back to the liver. Triglycerides are used by the body to store energy and to provide that energy, as needed, to the muscles.
So long as healthy levels of these lipids are present in the blood, they work together to promote and maintain good health. However, when healthy levels are not maintained, they can increase risk for cardiovascular disease. High cholesterol, LDL and triglyceride levels and/or low HDL levels can lead to a buildup of plaque inside blood vessels as excess lipids begin to stick to their walls. This condition, called atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, can gradually restrict blood flow as arteries become narrower and lose flexibility. This creates an increased risk for hypertension, or high blood pressure and various types of heart disease as the heart works harder to pump blood through the body. Atherosclerosis can also lead to partial or total blockages of blood vessels, which can lead to heart attack or stroke.
When should lipid panels be done?
Generally, it is recommended that adults age 20 and over who have no known risk factors for heart disease undergo a lipid panel test every five years. Adults who do have risk factors for heart disease should have cholesterol/triglyceride testing done more frequently. Risk factors that should prompt more frequent testing include:
- Overweight or obesity
- High blood pressure
- Diabetes or prediabetes
- Regular cigarette smoking
- Poor diet
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Age – being over age 45 for men, and age 50-55 for women
- A family history of heart disease
- Existing heart disease or a previous heart attack
Routine cholesterol/triglyceride screening is also recommended for children. Lipid panel tests should be done between ages 9 and 11 and again during adolescence, between the ages of 17 and 21. Testing should begin earlier and be done more frequently in children who are at increased risk of developing heart disease in the future due to risk factors that include:
- A family history of heart disease
- A personal history of health problems, such as diabetes or overweight/obesity
About lipid panel test results
Lipid panel test results will provide you with a measurement of your personal level of total cholesterol, HDL, LDL and triglycerides. These numbers can help you and your healthcare provider determine whether your levels fall within a healthy range or one that indicates an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, for adults, those ranges are as follows:
- Total Cholesterol – A total cholesterol level below 200 mg/dL is considered healthy. Levels between 200 and 239 mg/dL are considered borderline high. Total cholesterol numbers of 240 mg/dL or greater are considered high cholesterol levels.
- LDL Cholesterol – Levels of LDL cholesterol are considered optimal if they fall below 100 mg/dL. Levels between 100 and 129 mg/dL are considered near optimal and are still within the healthy range. LDL levels between 130 and 159 mg/dL are borderline high. LDL numbers between 160 and 189 are high, and levels of 190 or higher are considered very high.
- HDL Cholesterol – Unlike other cholesterol numbers, higher is better for HDL cholesterol. Levels less than 40 mg/dL are considered a major risk factor for heart disease. HDL numbers between 40 and 59 mg/dL are considered healthy, but the higher they are within that range, the better. Levels of 60 mg/dL or higher are considered protective against heart disease.
- Triglycerides – Levels below 150 mg/dL are considered desirable. Triglyceride levels of 150 to 199 mg/dL are borderline high. Levels between 200 and 499 mg/dL are considered high. Triglyceride numbers of 500 mg/dL or higher are considered very high.
What can be done about unhealthy lipid levels
With treatment, high cholesterol and/or triglyceride levels can be reduced to healthy ones, reducing your risk of heart disease. Typically, doctors will suggest lifestyle changes first as a means of reducing unhealthy lipid levels. These generally include dietary changes to reduce your intake of fats and increase your intake of fiber, aerobic exercise to help lower cholesterol levels and control your weight, and getting rid of harmful habits – smoking, for instance. If lifestyle measures alone do not bring your cholesterol and/or triglyceride levels back to a healthy range, your doctor may suggest that you try one of several medications that can further reduce them.