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Trying to Reduce the Risk : A $15 home test can gauge your cholesterol level, which may help determine if you need a complete physical evaluation.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; <i> Barbara Bronson Gray is a regular contributor to The Times</i>

You want fries with that? Not anymore.

As boomers and others age, health providers say the emerging high-anxiety health issue is cholesterol, which forms plaque on artery walls and typically increases the risk of heart attack and stroke.

Until recently, the only way to find out your cholesterol level was to see a physician or nurse practitioner for a test.

Now there’s a $15 home test--called Advanced Care Cholesterol Test, by Johnson & Johnson--that takes about 15 minutes from start to finish and requires only the courage to use the kit’s lancet to draw blood from a middle or ring finger.

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Reading the test is no more difficult than checking a thermometer-like device and comparing the number it registers to a chart, which indicates the cholesterol level.

As for interpretation, the kits come with a booklet explaining cholesterol and what to do if readings are high, with suggestions about when to see a physician.

The American Heart Assn. says nearly 95 million American adults--54%--have blood cholesterol values of 200 milligrams per deciliter or higher, considered to be borderline-high. And a 1988 Food and Drug Administration survey found that only 30% of people with high cholesterol levels were aware of their condition.

Some health experts question the value of the cholesterol home test because it only measures total cholesterol. It is the ratio of the two types of cholesterol, high-density lipoproteins, or HDL, and low-density lipoproteins, or LDL, that is considered the best indication of cholesterol risk.

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“You can get a false confidence or a false fear as a result,” said David Bauer, a family practice physician in Northridge.

Yet Bauer acknowledged that for some people, the home test may be a first step to learning more about their health status, and that a high reading could be what they need to trigger a trip to a health provider for a complete evaluation.

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“A large number of people don’t normally go to a doctor, and if we can catch some of these health problems early, it will make a difference,” Bauer said.

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There are now home test kits for everything from pregnancy to urinary tract infections, and some experts worry that the burgeoning availability will increase the number of people who get only piecemeal health assessment. Some wonder about the value of the results if detrimental behaviors are not changed, whether through expert counseling or other intervention.

“If no one talks to a patient, it’s hard to motivate them,” Bauer said. Someone with high cholesterol who is not exercising regularly needs an in-depth nutritional assessment and motivation to make significant lifestyle changes, he said.

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Despite the limits of a home kit, the American Heart Assn. supports home cholesterol testing and acknowledges that the kits meet Food and Drug Administration standards for reliability and accuracy.

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But the association looks forward to the day when home kits can also reveal HDL levels, said Dana Butler, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles office.

Butler emphasized that the home kits are screening mechanisms, not a way to get a medical diagnosis.

“It’s just one step in assessing the person’s overall risk of heart disease,” she said.

Bauer predicted that the home testing trend will continue to grow.

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“I think people are taking more responsibility for their own health, and these cholesterol test kits are just one part of the trend.”

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Rating Your Reading

The National Cholesterol Education Program recommends that all adults 20 and older have their total cholesterol measured at least once every five years. Those with elevated or borderline cholesterol readings are encouraged to get routine monitoring and lifestyle management. In a report released in 1993, these standards for total cholesterol levels were established:

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TOTAL CHOLESTEROL (milligrams per deciliter): CLASSIFICATION

Less than 200: desirable

200 to 239: borderline-high

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240 or more: high

For a free copy of the booklet “Cholesterol and Your Heart,” call the American Heart Assn. at (800) AHA-USA1.


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