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Cholesterol Levels: What You Need to Know

Summary

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that's found in all the cells in your body. Your liver makes cholesterol, and it is also in some foods, such as meat and dairy products. Your body needs some cholesterol to work properly. But if you have too much cholesterol in your blood, you have a higher risk of coronary artery disease.

How do you measure cholesterol levels?

A blood test called a lipoprotein panel can measure your cholesterol levels. Before the test, you'll need to fast (not eat or drink anything but water) for 9 to 12 hours. The test gives information about your

  • Total cholesterol - a measure of the total amount of cholesterol in your blood. It includes the two types - low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol.
  • LDL (bad) cholesterol - the main source of cholesterol buildup and blockage in the arteries
  • HDL (good) cholesterol - HDL helps remove cholesterol from your arteries
  • Non-HDL - this number is your total cholesterol minus your HDL. Your non-HDL includes LDL and other types of cholesterol such as VLDL (very-low-density lipoprotein).
  • Triglycerides - another form of fat in your blood that can raise your risk for heart disease, especially in women

What do my cholesterol numbers mean?

Cholesterol numbers are measured in milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL). Here are the healthy levels of cholesterol, based on your age and gender:

Anyone age 19 or younger:

Type of Cholesterol Healthy Level
Total Cholesterol Less than 170mg/dL
Non-HDL Less than 120mg/dL
LDL Less than 100mg/dL
HDL More than 45mg/dL

Men age 20 or older:

Type of Cholesterol Healthy Level
Total Cholesterol 125 to 200mg/dL
Non-HDL Less than 130mg/dL
LDL Less than 100mg/dL
HDL 40mg/dL or higher

Women age 20 or older:

Type of Cholesterol Healthy Level
Total Cholesterol 125 to 200mg/dL
Non-HDL Less than 130mg/dL
LDL Less than 100mg/dL
HDL 50mg/dL or higher


Triglycerides are not a type of cholesterol, but they are part of a lipoprotein panel (the test that measures cholesterol levels). A normal triglyceride level is below 150 mg/dL. You might need treatment if you have triglyceride levels that are borderline high (150-199 mg/dL) or high (200 mg/dL or more).

How often should I get a cholesterol test?

When and how often you should get a cholesterol test depends on your age, risk factors, and family history. The general recommendations are:

For people who are age 19 or younger:

  • The first test should be between ages 9 to 11
  • Children should have the test again every 5 years
  • Some children may have this test starting at age 2 if there is a family history of high blood cholesterol, heart attack, or stroke

For people who are age 20 or older:

  • Younger adults should have the test every 5 years
  • Men ages 45 to 65 and women ages 55 to 65 should have it every 1 to 2 years

What affects my cholesterol levels?

A variety of things can affect cholesterol levels. These are some things you can do to lower your cholesterol levels:

  • Diet. Saturated fat and cholesterol in the food you eat make your blood cholesterol level rise. Saturated fat is the main problem, but cholesterol in foods also matters. Reducing the amount of saturated fat in your diet helps lower your blood cholesterol level. Foods that have high levels of saturated fats include some meats, dairy products, chocolate, baked goods, and deep-fried and processed foods.
  • Weight. Being overweight is a risk factor for heart disease. It also tends to increase your cholesterol. Losing weight can help lower your LDL (bad) cholesterol, total cholesterol, and triglyceride levels. It also raises your HDL (good) cholesterol level.
  • Physical Activity. Not being physically active is a risk factor for heart disease. Regular physical activity can help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and raise HDL (good) cholesterol levels. It also helps you lose weight. You should try to be physically active for 30 minutes on most, if not all, days.
  • Smoking. Cigarette smoking lowers your HDL (good) cholesterol. HDL helps to remove bad cholesterol from your arteries. So a lower HDL can contribute to a higher level of bad cholesterol.

Things outside of your control that can also affect cholesterol levels include:

  • Age and Gender. As women and men get older, their cholesterol levels rise. Before the age of menopause, women have lower total cholesterol levels than men of the same age. After the age of menopause, women's LDL (bad) cholesterol levels tend to rise.
  • Heredity. Your genes partly determine how much cholesterol your body makes. High blood cholesterol can run in families.
  • Race. Certain races may have an increased risk of high blood cholesterol. For example, African Americans typically have higher HDL and LDL cholesterol levels than whites.

How can I lower my cholesterol?

There are two main ways to lower your cholesterol:

  • Heart-healthy lifestyle changes, which include:
    • Heart-healthy eating. A heart-healthy eating plan limits the amount of saturated and trans fats that you eat. Examples include the Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes diet and the DASH Eating Plan.
    • Weight Management. If you are overweight, losing weight can help lower your LDL (bad) cholesterol.
    • Physical Activity. Everyone should get regular physical activity (30 minutes on most, if not all, days).
    • Managing stress. Research has shown that chronic stress can sometimes raise your LDL cholesterol and lower your HDL cholesterol.
    • Quitting smoking. Quitting smoking can raise your HDL cholesterol. Since HDL helps to remove LDL cholesterol from your arteries, having more HDL can help to lower your LDL cholesterol.
  • Drug Treatment. If lifestyle changes alone do not lower your cholesterol enough, you may also need to take medicines. There are several types of cholesterol medicines available, including statins. The medicines work in different ways and can have different side effects. Talk to your health care provider about which one is right for you. While you are taking medicines to lower your cholesterol, you should continue with the lifestyle changes.

NIH: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute

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