What Your Cholesterol Levels Mean

Updated:May 3,2018

Time to check your cholesterol

Keeping your cholesterol levels healthy is a great way to keep your heart healthy – and lower your chances of getting heart disease or having a stroke.

doctor talking to patientBut first, you have to know your cholesterol numbers.

The American Heart Association recommends all adults age 20 or older have their cholesterol, and other traditional risk factors, checked every four to six years.

Your test report will show your cholesterol levels in milligrams per deciliter of blood (mg/dL). Your total cholesterol and HDL (good) cholesterol are among numerous factors your doctor can use to predict your lifetime or 10-year risk for a heart attack or stroke.

To determine how your cholesterol levels affect your risk of heart disease, your doctor will also take into account other risk factors such as age, family history, smoking and high blood pressure.

A complete fasting lipoprotein profile will show the following for:

View an animation of cholesterol score. (opens in new window)Total blood (or serum) cholesterol

This isn’t a type of cholesterol. Instead, it’s a composite of different types. A person’s total cholesterol score is calculated by adding their HDL and LDL cholesterol levels and 20 percent of their triglyceride level.

You may be used to hearing about numerical ranges for total cholesterol. For many years they were widely publicized. Nowadays, these ranges aren’t used. Instead, total cholesterol levels are considered in context with other risk factors, and treatment is recommended accordingly.

View an animation of cholesterol score.

HDL (good) cholesterol

For many years, doctors used ranges to evaluate HDL cholesterol levels. Today doctors think about risk in broader terms. They evaluate HDL cholesterol levels in context with other risk factors.

People with high blood triglycerides usually also have lower HDL cholesterol. Genetic factors, type 2 diabetes, smoking, being overweight and being sedentary can all lower HDL cholesterol. Women tend to have higher levels of HDL cholesterol than men do.

LDL (bad) cholesterol

A low LDL cholesterol level is considered good for your heart health.

A diet high in saturated and trans fat is unhealthy because it tends to raise LDL cholesterol.

In the past, doctors relied on specific ranges for LDL. Today, these ranges aren’t used anymore, and doctors consider LDL levels as one factor of many in evaluating cardiovascular risk.

Current American Heart Association guidelines recommend this more integrated approach. When you have your cholesterol checked, talk to your doctor about your LDL cholesterol and other factors that impact your overall cardiovascular risk.


Normal triglyceride levels vary by age and sex. People with high triglycerides often have a high total cholesterol level, including a high LDL cholesterol level and a low HDL cholesterol level. Many people with heart disease or diabetes also have high triglyceride levels.

Elevated triglycerides can be caused by several factors. They are overweight and obesity, physical inactivity, cigarette smoking, excess alcohol consumption and a diet very high in carbohydrates (more than 60 percent of total calories). These causes can be addressed with lifestyle changes. Sometimes underlying diseases or genetic disorders cause high triglycerides, too. 

AHA Recommendation

We recommend that all adults age 20 or older have their cholesterol and other traditional risk factors checked every four to six years, and work with their healthcare providers to determine their risk for cardiovascular disease and stroke.

This content was last reviewed April 2017.



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