Cholesterol numbers: what do my test results mean?
Your body needs cholesterol for healthy functioning of cells. However, too much cholesterol greatly increases your risk of heart disease, including heart attacks and strokes. There are no symptoms for high cholesterol, so the only way to know if you have "too much" is through a cholesterol test, also called a lipid panel or profile.
So, what do the results of a cholesterol test mean for your health? What is total cholesterol, LDL, HDL... ? It is important to not only look at the overall cholesterol number but to know your numbers for all types of cholesterol.
What are the types of Cholesterol?
There are two types of cholesterol: low density lipoprotein (LDL) and high density lipoprotein (HDL).
LDL is considered the “bad” cholesterol, because it contributes to the fatty build ups in arteries.
HDL is considered the “good” cholesterol which when healthy can help protect against heart attack and stroke. It is better to have higher levels of HDL cholesterol and lower levels of LDL cholesterol.
There are also triglycerides, which is another type of fat in the bloodstream, that are also tied to heart disease.
Let's talk numbers
Total Blood Cholesterol Level:
High risk: 240 mg/dL and above
Borderline high risk: 200-239 mg/dL
Desirable: Less than 200 mg/dL
LDL Cholesterol Level:
High risk: 190 mg/dL and above
Desirable: Less than 100 mg/dL and less than 70 mg/dL if you have heart disease
HDL Cholesterol Level:
High risk (Men): Less than 40 mg/dL
High risk (Women): Less than 50 mg/dL
Very high risk: 500 mg/dL and above
High risk: 200-499 mg/dL
Borderline high risk: 150-199 mg/dL
Normal: Less than 150 mg/dL
I have very high LDL cholesterol. What should I do now?
For LDL-cholesterol, the general principle is that the "lower is better." According to the American College of Cardiology and American Heart Association's cholesterol management guidelines, individuals should have an LDL cholesterol under 100 mg/dL and under 70 mg/dL if they already have heart disease.
Are there ways to lower my cholesterol?
There are several considerations for lowering one’s cholesterol. Changes in one’s diet, exercise and personal habits can all be adjusted to help reduce your cholesterol levels. Learn more.
I eat healthy and exercise, but l still have high cholesterol. What can I do?
If you have an LDL cholesterol over 190 mg/dL and a family history of early heart disease it could be a genetic condition called familial hypercholesterolemia (FH). If you think you might have FH, talk to your doctor or connect with doctor who specializes in FH and other lipid disorders through our FH Specialist Map.
Does one’s gender affect their cholesterol?
Women may have a naturally higher HDL cholesterol than men. Cholesterol levels can rise during pregnancy and menopause as well. It is suggested not to get a cholesterol test during pregnancy because results can be inaccurate.
Page reviewed by Mary McGowan, MD
Bucholz EM, Rodday AM, Kolor K, Khoury MJ, de Ferranti SD. Prevalence and Predictors of Cholesterol Screening, Awareness, and Statin Treatment Among US Adults With Familial Hypercholesterolemia or Other Forms of Severe Dyslipidemia (1999–2014). 2018;137:2218–2230.
Grundy, S. M., Stone, N. J., Bailey, A. L., Beam, C., Birtcher, K. K., Blumenthal, R. S., . . . Yeboah, J. (2019). 2018 AHA/ACC/AACVPR/AAPA/ABC/ACPM/ADA/AGS/APhA/ASPC/NLA/PCNA Guideline on the Management of Blood Cholesterol: A Report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Clinical Practice Guidelines. Circulation, 139(25). doi:10.1161/cir.0000000000000625