What Do My Cholesterol Levels Mean?

Updated:Mar 22,2016
High cholesterol can increase your risk of heart attack and stroke. That’s why it’s important to have your cholesterol checked regularly. Your doctor will do a blood test called a fasting “lipoprotein profile” to measure your cholesterol levels. It assesses several types of fat in the blood. It is measured in milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL). The test gives you four results: total cholesterol, LDL (“bad”) and HDL (“good”) cholesterol, and triglycerides (blood fats).

What should my total cholesterol level be?

In the past, treatment guidelines directed healthcare providers to focus on treating their patients to target goal levels for total cholesterol, LDL, HDL and triglycerides.  However, current prevention guidelines recommend an approach that goes beyond cholesterol levels alone and considers overall risk assessment and reduction.

It's still important to know your numbers, but work with your healthcare provider to treat your risk. 

What numbers do I need to know?

You should be aware of five key numbers:  total cholesterol, HDL (good) cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar and body mass index (BMI). 

These numbers are important because they will allow you and your healthcare provider to determine your risk for developing cardiovascular disease caused by atherosclerosis. This includes conditions such as angina (chest pain), heart attack, stroke (caused by blood clots) and peripheral artery disease (PAD).

Ideal numbers for most adults are:
CategoryIdeal Number
Total cholesterolGet your cholesterol checked and talk to your doctor about your numbers and how they impact your overall risk.
HDL cholesterolGet your cholesterol checked and talk to your doctor about your numbers and how they impact your overall risk.
Blood pressureLess than 120/80 mm Hg
Fasting blood sugarLess than 100 mg/dL
Body mass index (BMI)Less than 25 kg/m2

What is HDL cholesterol?

HDL cholesterol is called “good” cholesterol. Having a high level of HDL can lower your risk of heart attack and stroke.

HDL takes cholesterol away from your arteries and back to the liver. There, it’s processed so that excess can be removed from your body. HDL may also remove cholesterol from plaque in the arteries.

What is LDL cholesterol?

LDL cholesterol is known as “bad” cholesterol. The body’s tissues use some of this cholesterol to build cells. But when you have too much of it, LDL can build up inside your arteries.

Together with other substances, it can form plaque (a thick, hard, fatty deposit). Plaque narrows the arteries and reduces blood flow. This is called atherosclerosis.

What are triglycerides?

Triglycerides are the most common type of fat in your body. They’re also a major energy source. They come from food, and your body also makes them. As people get older, gain excess weight or both, their triglyceride and cholesterol levels tend to rise.

Know Your Numbers

Use the chart below to keep track of your numbers each time you have a test. Make sure you discuss these numbers with your doctor.

                                                            1st Visit                2nd Visit                       3rd Visit                        4th Visit
Total cholesterol
HDL cholesterol
Blood Pressure
Fasting blood sugar 
Body Mass Index (BMI) 

How can I learn more?
  1. Call 1-800-AHA-USA1 (1-800-242-8721), or visit heart.org to learn more about heart disease and stroke.
  2. Sign up to get Heart Insight, a free magazine for heart patients and their families, at heartinsight.org.
  3. Connect with others sharing similar journeys with heart disease and stroke by joining our Support Network at heart.org/supportnetwork.
We have many other fact sheets to help you make healthier choices to reduce your risk, manage disease or care for a loved one. Visit heart.org/answersbyheart to learn more.

Do you have questions or comments for your doctor or nurse?

Take a few minutes to write your own questions for the next time you see your healthcare provider. For example:

How can I reduce my cholesterol?

How often should I have my cholesterol checked?

©2015, American Heart Association

Multi-language Fact Sheet Topics

Heart-related Conditions
What is Angina?
What is an Arrhythmia?
What Is Atrial Fibrillation?
What Do My Cholesterol Levels Mean?
How Can I Improve My Cholesterol?
What Are High Blood Cholesterol and Triglycerides?
What Is High Blood Pressure?
How Can I Reduce High Blood Pressure?
High Blood Pressure and Stroke
What Is Diabetes and How Can I Manage It?
How Can I Live With Heart Failure?
What Is Heart Failure?
What Is a Heart Attack?
How Will I Recover From My Heart Attack?
What Are the Warning Signs of Heart Attack?
What Are Heart Disease and Stroke?
What is Metabolic Syndrome?
What is Peripheral Vascular Disease?

Stroke, Recovery and Caregiving
Hemorrhagic Stroke
Ischemic Stroke
Stroke, TIA and Warning Signs
What Are the Warning Signs of Stroke?
Stroke Risk Factors
Lifestyle Changes to Prevent Stroke
Stroke Diagnosis
Complications After Stroke
Changes Caused by Stroke
Emotional Changes After Stroke
Feeling Tired After a Stroke
Stroke and Aphasia
Stroke and Rehabilitation
Stroke Family Caregivers
How Should I Care for Myself as a Caregiver?

Treatment, Tests and Procedures
What is Cholesterol-Lowering Medicine?
What is High Blood Pressure Medicine?
What Are Anticoagulants and Antiplatelet Agents?
How Do I Manage My Medicines?
What Is an Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator?
What Is a Pacemaker?
What Is Coronary Angioplasty?
What is a Stent?
What is Coronary Bypass Surgery?
What is a Coronary Angiogram?
How Can I Recover From Heart Surgery?
What is Carotid Endarterectomy?

Healthy Lifestyle and Risk Reduction
How Can I Manage My Weight?
How Can Physical Activity Become a Way of Life?
Why Should I Be Physically Active?
How Do I Follow a Healthy Diet?
How Can I Cook Healthfully?
Why Should I Limit Sodium?
How Do I Understand "Nutrition Facts" Labels?
How Can I Quit Smoking?
How Can I Manage Stress?
How Can I Make My Lifestyle Healthier?
How Can I Monitor My Cholesterol, Blood Pressure and Weight?