What Your Cholesterol Levels Mean

doctor reviewing chart with patient

Understanding your cholesterol levels

Maintaining healthy cholesterol levels is a great way to keep your heart healthy. It can lower your chances of getting heart disease or having a stroke.

But first, you have to know your cholesterol numbers.

The American Heart Association recommends

All adults age 20 or older should have their cholesterol (and other risk factors) checked every four to six years. Work with your doctor to determine your risk for cardiovascular disease and stroke.

Learn how to get your cholesterol tested

Your test results: A preview

Your test results 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. Your doctor will also take other risk factors into account, such as age, family history, smoking and high blood pressure.

A complete cholesterol test, also called a lipoprotein or lipid profile, will give you results for your HDL (good) cholesterol, LDL (bad) cholesterol, triglycerides, and your total blood (or serum) cholesterol.

Watch an animation about cholesterol score.

HDL (good) cholesterol

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

People with high blood triglycerides usually also have lower levels of the good kind of cholesterol, or HDL. 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

Since LDL is the bad kind of cholesterol, a low LDL level is considered good for your heart health.

In the past, doctors relied on specific ranges for LDL. Today, doctors consider LDL levels as one factor among many when evaluating cardiovascular risk. (The latest American Heart Association guidelines endorse this more integrated approach.) Talk to your doctor about your LDL cholesterol level as well as other factors that impact your cardiovascular health.

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

Triglycerides

Triglycerides are the chemical form in which most fats exist – in foods, as well as in our bodies.

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

Several factors can contribute to an elevated triglyceride level, including:

  • Being overweight, or obesity
  • Physical inactivity
  • Cigarette smoking
  • Excess alcohol consumption
  • A diet very high in carbohydrates (more than 60 percent of total calories)
  • These factors can be addressed with lifestyle changes. Underlying diseases or genetic disorders can also cause high triglyceride levels.

Total blood (or serum) cholesterol score

This component of your test results is actually a composite of different measurements. Your total blood cholesterol score is calculated by adding your HDL and LDL cholesterol levels, plus 20 percent of your triglyceride level.

Here again, “normal ranges” are less important than your overall cardiovascular risk. Like HDL and LDL cholesterol levels, your total blood cholesterol score should be considered in context with your other known risk factors.

Your doctor can recommend treatment approaches accordingly.

Learn more about:

What is Cholesterol?