Making Sense of Your Cholesterol and Blood Pressure Readings

Your guide to understanding the readings your doctor gives you.

Getting your cholesterol and blood pressure tested are steps toward a healthy future — but it’s important that you fully understand your results so you can make lifestyle changes, if necessary. So here’s information on cholesterol and blood pressure tests, as well as tips on getting the most accurate results.

Cholesterol Test
This test measures fats in the bloodstream. One of these fats, cholesterol, is produced naturally by the liver to make cell membranes and some hormones. A little goes a long way — too much can block blood vessels, causing a heart attack or stroke.

Who needs it Most doctors recommend a cholesterol screening every three to five years for adults over age 20 whose levels are normal. If you have high cholesterol or other risk factors for heart disease, you should have your cholesterol checked yearly.

How it’s done A fingerstick blood sample is sent to a lab for analysis.

What the results mean A total cholesterol below 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl) is desirable; 200 to 239 mg/dl is borderline high; 240 mg/dl and over is high. For a more sensitive indicator of heart disease risk, however, you need measurements of low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high-density lipoproteins (HDL), substances that carry cholesterol through the bloodstream. LDL is often called “bad” cholesterol, because too much LDL in blood can lead to cholesterol buildup and blockage in the arteries. HDL is known as “good” cholesterol. That is because HDL helps remove cholesterol from the blood, preventing it from piling up in the arteries. The higher your HDL, the less your risk of coronary heart disease. Alone or in combination, a high total cholesterol, a high LDL level, or a low HDL level can indicate likely heart disease. A healthy LDL reading is anything less than 130 mg/dl. A good HDL reading is 50 to 60 mg/dl for women and 40 to 50 mg/dl for men.

A triglyceride reading of less than 200 mg/dl is considered normal; 200 to 400 mg/dl is borderline high; 400 to 1,000 is high. High readings are linked to coronary artery disease and untreated diabetes in some people.

Blood Pressure Check
This simple test measures how forcefully your heart pumps blood through your arteries. It should be performed at every checkup.

Who needs it A blood pressure check is mandatory at least every other year until you are 65; after that, you need to be checked yearly.

How it’s done An inflatable cuff is placed around your upper arm. The cuff is pumped up until it squeezes your arm snugly (to cut off your blood supply). Then it’s allowed to deflate while the person administering the test listens with a stethoscope placed below the cuff for when the sound of your heartbeat appears and disappears.

What the results mean Blood pressure is reported in two numbers, 130/85, for example. The top number (called the systolic reading) is the pressure exerted when your heart beats, while the bottom number (called the diastolic reading) is the pressure exerted when your heart rests between beats. Blood pressure varies throughout the day, so don’t panic if you get one high reading. To get a true picture, your doctor may average several readings.

Ideally, the top number is around 120, and the bottom number falls between 70 and 80.

You’re in the “normal” range if your top number is between 120 and 129 and your bottom number is between 80 and 84. “High-normal” ranges from 130 to 139 and 85 to 89. Any reading above 140/90 is considered high blood pressure, which can weaken your arteries, increasing your chance of heart attack and stroke. Low blood pressure (any reading significantly lower than 120/70) is called hypotension; it usually isn’t a problem unless it causes fainting or light-headedness.

Getting Better Results
To get more accurate readings from your blood pressure and cholesterol tests, follow these tips.

Blood Pressure

  • Don’t have the test when you’re frazzled. Stress can send your readings higher.
  • Don’t have the test right after smoking, drinking caffeine or alcohol, or eating a large meal.
  • Don’t talk, chew gum, or cross your legs during the test.
  • Empty your bladder, sit comfortably, and try to stay calm. Anxiety about being in the doctor’s office can cause a temporary increase in blood pressure called “white-coat syndrome.” Blood-pressure tests should be administered after you’ve been quiet and relaxed for at least five minutes.


  • If possible, sit and relax for 5 to 15 minutes before the test. Lying down or standing up can cause inaccurate results.
  • Don’t exercise strenuously the day before the test or drink alcohol for two days before; you’ll temporarily raise your HDL levels.
Originally Published in Reader's Digest

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