It's important to keep your cholesterol levels within healthy limits. If you have other risk factors for developing heart disease, you need to be even more careful — especially with your low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or "bad," cholesterol level.
Interpreting your cholesterol numbers
Cholesterol levels are measured in milligrams (mg) of cholesterol per deciliter (dL) of blood in the United States and some other countries. Canada and most European countries measure cholesterol in millimoles (mmol) per liter (L) of blood. Consider these general guidelines when you get your cholesterol test (lipid panel or lipid profile) results to see if your cholesterol falls in an ideal range.
(U.S. and some other countries) Total cholesterol*
(Canada and most of Europe) Below 200 mg/dL Below 5.2 mmol/L Desirable 200-239 mg/dL 5.2-6.2 mmol/L Borderline high 240 mg/dL and above Above 6.2 mmol/L High
(U.S. and some other countries) LDL cholesterol*
(Canada and most of Europe) Below 70 mg/dL Below 1.8 mmol/L Ideal for people at very high risk of heart disease Below 100 mg/dL Below 2.6 mmol/L Ideal for people at risk of heart disease 100-129 mg/dL 2.6-3.3 mmol/L Near ideal 130-159 mg/dL 3.4-4.1 mmol/L Borderline high 160-189 mg/dL 4.1-4.9 mmol/L High 190 mg/dL and above Above 4.9 mmol/L Very high
(U.S. and some other countries) HDL cholesterol*
(Canada and most of Europe) Below 40 mg/dL (men)
Below 50 mg/dL (women) Below 1 mmol/L (men)
Below 1.3 mmol/L (women) Poor 40-49 mg/dL (men)
50-59 mg/dL (women) 1-1.3 mmol/L (men)
1.3-1.5 mmol/L (women) Better 60 mg/dL and above 1.6 mmol/L and above Best
(U.S. and some other countries) Triglycerides*
(Canada and most of Europe) Below 150 mg/dL Below 1.7 mmol/L Desirable 150-199 mg/dL 1.7-2.2 mmol/L Borderline high 200-499 mg/dL 2.3-5.6 mmol/L High 500 mg/dL and above Above 5.6 mmol/L and above Very high
*Canadian and European guidelines differ slightly from U.S. guidelines. These conversions are based on U.S. guidelines.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that a triglyceride level of 100 mg/dL (1.3 mmol/L) or lower is considered optimal. The AHA says this optimal level would improve your heart health. However, the AHA doesn't recommend drug treatment to reach this level. Instead, for those trying to lower their triglycerides to this level, lifestyle changes such as diet, weight loss and physical activity are encouraged. Elevated triglycerides usually respond well to dietary and lifestyle changes.
LDL targets differ
Because LDL cholesterol is a major risk factor for heart disease, it's the main focus of cholesterol-lowering treatment. Your target LDL number can vary, depending on your underlying risk of heart disease.
Most people should aim for an LDL level below 130 mg/dL (3.4 mmol/L). If you have other risk factors for heart disease, your target LDL may be below 100 mg/dL (2.6 mmol/L). If you're at very high risk of heart disease, you may need to aim for an LDL level below 70 mg/dL (1.8 mmol/L). In general, the lower your LDL cholesterol level is, the better. There is no evidence that really low LDL cholesterol levels are harmful.
You're considered to be at a high risk of heart disease if you have or have had any of the following:
A previous heart attack or strokeArtery blockages in your neck (carotid artery disease)Artery blockages in your arms or legs (peripheral artery disease)Diabetes
In addition, two or more of the following risk factors also might place you in the very high risk group:
SmokingHigh blood pressureLow HDL cholesterolFamily history of early heart diseaseAge older than 45 if you're a man, or older than 55 if you're a womanElevated lipoprotein (a), another type of fat (lipid) in your blood
Types of cholesterol
LDL cholesterol can build up on the inside of artery walls, contributing to artery blockages that can lead to heart attacks. Higher LDL cholesterol levels mean higher risk. High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol is known as "good" cholesterol because it helps prevent arteries from becoming clogged. Higher HDL cholesterol levels generally mean lower risk.
A blood test to check cholesterol levels — called a lipid panel or lipid profile — typically reports:
Total cholesterolHDL cholesterolLDL cholesterolTriglycerides, a type of fat often increased by sweets and alcohol
For the most accurate measurements, don't eat or drink anything (other than water) for nine to 12 hours before the blood sample is taken.
If your LDL cholesterol is too high, the first thing your doctor will probably suggest is lifestyle changes. These changes include:
Quitting smokingEating more soluble fiber, found in oatmeal, beans, fruits and vegetablesEating less fat and cholesterol from meat and dairy productsLosing weightExercising at least 30 minutes a day on most days of the week
Being overweight and inactive tends to increase your LDL cholesterol and lower your HDL cholesterol, exactly the opposite of what you want. Exercise and weight loss can help reverse this trend. This is especially important for people who have large waist measurements — more than 40 inches (101.6 centimeters) for men and more than 35 inches (88.9 centimeters) for women — because people with this body shape are more likely to develop heart disease.
Medications may be needed
When lifestyle changes aren't enough to reach your cholesterol targets, your doctor may prescribe medications to help lower your cholesterol levels. These drugs, such as statins, aren't a replacement for lifestyle changes. You'll still need to eat well and exercise.
A hidden risk factor — family history
High cholesterol has no symptoms, but your genetic makeup — reflected in a family history of high cholesterol — might make you more prone to high cholesterol, even if you eat right and exercise.
That's why it's so important to have a baseline cholesterol test at age 20 and have follow-up tests at least once every five years. Finding the problem early allows you to take action before it's too late. Your doctor may recommend more frequent cholesterol tests if your total cholesterol level or LDL cholesterol level is high, or if you have a family history of heart disease or high cholesterol.