If you donâ€™t mind pricking a finger, you can check your cholesterol without cooling your heels in a doctorâ€™s waiting room or laboratory. Devices available in pharmacies or through the Internet make this easy to do at home. But is it worth doing?
The makers of home cholesterol tests rightly tout their products as faster than visiting a doctor. You prick your finger, gently squeeze a few drops of blood onto a test strip or into a small â€œwell,â€ and voilÃ â€”you get the results in a few minutes, instead of waiting a few days.Foggy Forecast
Home testing kits approved by the Food and Drug Administration should be as accurate as a laboratory. Under controlled conditions, they may well be. But at home, without expert guidance, they often arenâ€™t. One problem is that people tend to squeeze or â€œmilkâ€ a finger to get blood onto the test strip or into the well. This can throw off the results.
Even when the reading is accurate, it may not be very useful. Kits such as CholesTrak, Home Access Instant Cholesterol Test, or First Check Home Cholesterol Test measure only total cholesterol. This is interesting information. But itâ€™s not enough to assess your cardiovascular health.
Cholesterol is carried through the bloodstream by a mix of particles. The main ones are low-density lipoproteins (LDL, â€œbadâ€ cholesterol) and high-density lipoproteins (HDL, â€œgoodâ€ cholesterol). Triglycerides are another important fat-carrying particle.
Knowing only the total doesnâ€™t do you much good. Take two women with â€œnormalâ€ total cholesterol levels of 195 mg/dL. One whose LDL is 155 (thatâ€™s high) and HDL is 25 (thatâ€™s low) has an elevated risk for heart disease. Another whose LDL is 105 and HDL is 75 has a much healthier profile.
Two in-home testing products can tell you your total cholesterol, HDL, and triglyceride levels (Cardio Check and Lifestream Personal Cholesterol Monitor). Unfortunately, it takes three separate jabs with a sharp lancet to do this, the tests donâ€™t measure LDL, and they cost more than $100.Monitoring Change
Although home tests donâ€™t help forecast your chances of having a heart attack or other cardiovascular problem, might they at least show you whether a diet and exercise program is improving your cholesterol levels? Not necessarily.
Eating fewer saturated and trans fats can help lower your LDL. Exercise can boost your HDL. Yet even if you make these healthy gains, a home test might record little or no change in your total cholesterol. You might misinterpret this as a sign that things arenâ€™t working and give up when youâ€™re really making great progress.
A home test could let you monitor how well a statin or other cholesterol-lowering drug is working. Thatâ€™s because these drugs mostly affect LDL and total cholesterol. But that wonâ€™t save you a trip to the lab. Your doctor will still want to measure your progress and check your liver or muscle function periodically. He or she can do a complete cholesterol assessment then.Leave it to the Lab
Home cholesterol tests donâ€™t offer any real advantages. They donâ€™t provide accurate information about your cardiovascular risk. Nor do they tell you much about the impact of diet or exercise on your cholesterol.
Some home tests can also be very tricky to understand. They report cholesterol levels in terms of the current national guidelines. The targets and cut-offs in these guidelines vary, depending on other health conditions, and you may need a doctor to help you figure out which standards apply to you.
In general, youâ€™re better off not checking your cholesterol at home. Let a lab give you the detailed information you need. Everyone over age 20 should have a full cholesterol test at least every five years. To do this, you need to give a â€œfastingâ€ blood sample after not eating or drinking anything but water for 12 hours. This is the only way to accurately measure LDL, HDL, and triglycerides.
But wait!Â Once you get your results, you arenâ€™t finished.Â A lot of people I know will get a letter in the mail or a phone call about their test results and thatâ€™s it.Â However, thereâ€™s more to do once you get the results.Â Itâ€™s important to talk to your doctor about them and ask what you should be doing to improve your health as it relates to your current cholesterol levels.Â The sound advice that your doctor can give you about YOU cannot be replaced by any tabulated lab results.Â The interpretation is important and the â€œnext stepsâ€ are what you need to know.Â
Tell me about your experiences having your cholesterol checkedâ€”either at home or by your doctor. The Harvard Heart Letter provides eight pages of monthly heart news, directly from the more than 8,000 doctors and researchers at Harvard Medical School. Itâ€™s a source of expert advice for people who may already suffer from heart disease (or their family members) and for people concerned about their risk who wish to take steps towards positive change.Â