What Your Cholesterol Numbers Mean

What Your Cholesterol Numbers Mean

According to the American Heart Association, everyone over 20 years of age should be aware of his or her cholesterol numbers. The numbers are determined by taking a blood test, called a fasting lipoprotein profile. Cholesterol readings break down the good (high-density lipoproteins or HDL) and bad (low-density lipoproteins or LDL) cholesterol, as well as the triglyceride levels in the blood. Cholesterol reading should then be done once every five years.

Though cholesterol is a natural fatty substance your body uses to stay healthy, if your cholesterol numbers aren’t where they should be, you could be at risk for serious health problems, including heart attack and stroke. Your physician will take other lifestyle and genetic factors into account, along with your cholesterol readings, in assessing your overall risk.

To measure your cholesterol levels, you will be asked to fast for 12 hours before the blood test. Cholesterol levels are measured in milligrams per deciliter of blood (mg/dL)

What the HDL Cholesterol Numbers Mean

HDL or good cholesterol numbers are the ones that should be high. HDL regulates the flow of bad cholesterol out of your blood stream. If your HDL as measured in your blood (serum) cholesterol is too low, your chance of heart disease is increased by leaving the LDL cholesterol free to clog your arteries. Here is what the specific cholesterol numbers mean (all cholesterol numbers are taken from the American Heart Association's website).

  • HDL cholesterol number of 60 mg/dL or above:
    A reading about 60 is considered to be protective against heart disease     
  • HDL cholesterol number of 50 mg/dL or below (for WOMEN):
    Cholesterol readings of 50 or below for women indicate low cholesterol, and a major risk factor for heart disease.
  • HDL cholesterol number of 40 mg/dL or below (for MEN):
    Cholesterol readings
  • of 40 or below for men are considered low, and a major risk factor for heart disease.

What the LDL Cholesterol Numbers Mean

The LDL cholesterol number should be low. LDL is called “bad cholesterol” for a reason: it builds up in your arteries, blocking the path for blood to be pumped in and out of your heart. This can put you at serious risk for heart attack or stroke. Here is a breakdown of the LDL cholesterol numbers.

LDL cholesterol numbers
Less than 100mg/dL Optimal
100 to 129 mg/dL Near or above optimal
130 to 159 mg/dL Borderline high
160 to 189 mg/dL High
190 mg/dL and above: Very high

Triglycerides – What the Numbers Mean

Triglycerides are the natural form in which fat exists in food and in your body. Triglycerides are required for your body to function properly, but they need to be at a healthy level to do so. High triglyceride levels combined with low HDL cholesterol or high LDL cholesterol may encourage the buildup of fatty deposits in the walls of the arteries, or atherosclerosis, which can lead to heart attack or stroke.

Triglyceride levels
Less than 150 mg/dL Normal
150 to 199 mg/dL Near or above optimal
200 to 499 mg/dL High
500 mg/dL and above: Very high

Total Cholesterol Level

Cholesterol readings also give you a total blood serum cholesterol level. This number measures your risk for coronary heart disease.

Total Cholesterol Level
Less than 200 mg/dL Desirable level that puts you at lower risk for coronary heart disease. A cholesterol level of 200 mg/dL or higher raises your risk.
200 to 239 mg/dL Borderline high
240 mg/dL and above High blood cholesterol. A person with this level has more than twice the risk of coronary heart disease as someone whose cholesterol is below 200 mg/dL.


Although the thought of discovering what your cholesterol numbers are might seem intimidating, it is important to keep up with the tests. Your health care professional will consult with you about making any necessary changes to regulate your cholesterol levels.

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