What Your Cholesterol Levels Mean

Video: What is Cholesterol?

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 traditional risk factors checked every four to six years as long as risk remains low. If certain factors put you at high risk, or if you already have heart disease, your health care professional may ask you to check it more often. Work together to determine your risk for cardiovascular disease and stroke and create a plan to reduce your risk.

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, or mg/dL. Total cholesterol and HDL (good) cholesterol are among numerous factors your health care professional can use to predict your lifetime or 10-year risk for a heart attack or stroke. Your health care professional will also consider other risk factors, such as age, family history, smoking status, diabetes and high blood pressure.

Lipid profile or lipid panel is a blood test that will give you results for your HDL cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, triglycerides and total blood cholesterol.

Watch an animation about cholesterol score.

HDL cholesterol

HDL cholesterol is called “good” cholesterol. A healthy HDL-cholesterol level may help protect against heart attack and stroke. Your health care professional will evaluate your HDL and other cholesterol levels and other factors to assess your risk for heart attack or stroke.

People with high blood triglycerides may also have lower levels of HDL. Genetic factors, diabetes, smoking, being overweight and being sedentary can all lower HDL cholesterol. Men between ages 20 and 39 tend to have higher levels of HDL cholesterol than women do, but women’s risk increases after menopause.

LDL cholesterol

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

LDL levels are one factor among many to consider when evaluating cardiovascular risk. Talk to your health care professional 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.

How low can I go with my LDL?

  • Various research studies on LDL have shown “lower is better.”
  • While there is no ideal target blood level for LDL-C, the 2018 guideline recognizes, in principle, that “lower is better.” Studies suggest that an optimal total cholesterol level is about 150 mg/dL, with LDL-C at or below 100 mg/dL, and adults with LDL-C in this level have lower rates of heart disease and stroke.
  • Talk to your health care professional. If you’re healthy, aim for an LDL below 100 mg/dL. Additionally, for individuals with a history of heart attack or stroke and are already on a cholesterol-lowering medication, your doctor may aim for at least 50% reduction in your LDL-C level to 70 mg/dL or lower.

Learn more about why it’s important to manage your LDL cholesterol.

What Does My LDL Number Mean? (PDF) | Spanish (PDF)

Why Should I Know My LDL Cholesterol? (PDF) | Spanish (PDF)


Triglycerides are the most common type of fat in your body. They come from food, and your body also makes them.

People with high triglycerides may also have a high total cholesterol level, including a high LDL cholesterol level and a low HDL cholesterol level. Many people with metabolic syndrome or diabetes also have high triglyceride levels.

Factors that can contribute to elevated triglyceride levels include:

  • Overweight or obesity
  • Insulin resistance or metabolic syndrome
  • Diabetes mellitus
  • Alcohol consumption, especially in excess
  • Excess sugar intake, especially from sugary drinks
  • Eating processed foods
  • High saturated fat intake
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Physical inactivity
  • Insulin resistance or metabolic syndrome
  • Pregnancy, especially in the third trimester
  • Inflammatory diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus

Some medications may also increase triglycerides.

Total blood cholesterol

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

While cholesterol levels above “normal ranges” are important in your overall cardiovascular risk, like HDL and LDL cholesterol levels, your total blood cholesterol level should be considered in context with your other known risk factors.

Your health care professional can recommend treatment approaches based on your risk.