You've probably had your cholesterol levels checked, or could
very easily - it just takes a blood test. But what do these numbers
mean, and what are they supposed to be?
Types of cholesterol measured
Well, naturally you'd think that a lab test for cholesterol would
simply tell you how much cholesterol you have. And it does, but
wait: There are several cholesterol measurements. These are:
- Total cholesterol.
- HDL cholesterol.
- LDL cholesterol.
HDL cholesterol is the "good" cholesterol carried on high-density
lipoproteins. Having more of it means you're more
likely to have a lower risk of coronary heart disease
LDL cholesterol is the "bad" cholesterol carried on low-density
lipoproteins. You're better off with lower levels of LDL
cholesterol, because it's associated with a higher risk of
Note that total cholesterol doesn't equal HDL cholesterol
plus LDL cholesterol. This is because there are still more types of
cholesterol, which we won't talk about here.
Your cholesterol numbers
Cholesterol is measured as milligrams
of cholesterol per deciliter
of blood, which is abbreviated like this: mg/dL.
Often, your total cholesterol is the only type tested. Or you may
have both your total cholesterol and your HDL cholesterol tested at
the same time.
If your total cholesterol is:
|200 mg/dL or less
|Between 200 and 239 mg/dL
||Borderline high cholesterol
|240 mg/dL or more
If your HDL cholesterol is:
|Less than 40 mg/dL
|More than 40 mg/dL
||Beneficial especially if it's above 60
People should have a lipid profile test (total cholesterol, HDL
cholesterol and triglycerides) after an overnight fast. These tests
allow the LDL cholesterol to be calculated.
Elevated triglycerides are common and a risk factor for CHD.
Triglycerides may be elevated even if the total and HDL cholesterol
are normal. So there is no way to know if a person has high
triglycerides unless it is measured.
If you are 20 years old or older, have no heart disease
and your LDL cholesterol is:
|Less than 100 mg/dL
|100 - 129 mg/dL
|130 - 159 mg/dL
|160 - 189 mg/dL
|190 mg/dL and above
If you already have CHD or diabetes, then your LDL
cholesterol should be 100 mg/dL or less.
Your cholesterol ratio
Sometimes you'll be given your cholesterol results as a ratio of
total cholesterol to HDL cholesterol. (This is the same thing as
saying total cholesterol divided by HDL cholesterol.) According to
the American Heart Association (AHA), the ratio should be below 5:1
with the optimal amount being 3.5:1 (3.5 to 1).
It's also possible to divide LDL cholesterol by HDL cholesterol
to obtain a ratio. (This is the same thing as saying the ratio of
LDL cholesterol to HDL cholesterol.) In this case, the ratio should
be below 3.5.
However, the AHA recommends using absolute numbers for
cholesterol (as discussed above) rather than ratios. The reason is
that the absolute numbers give doctors a better idea of what type of
treatment is needed by the patient, than do ratios.
are another fatty substance in the blood that affects your risk for
heart disease. Most fat in food, as well as in your body, is present
in the form of triglycerides. High levels of triglycerides are a
matter of concern and are linked to the risk of heart disease, just
as with cholesterol.
If your triglycerides are tested, here is how you can interpret
the numbers, according to the Third Report of the Expert Panel on
the Detection, Evaluation, and Treatment of High Blood Cholesterol
|Less than 150 mg/dL
|150 - 199 mg/dL
|200 - 499 mg/Dl
|More than 500 mg/Dl
Calculating LDL cholesterol
If your triglycerides are less than 400 mg/dL, your doctor
can calculate your level of LDL cholesterol from your tested levels
of total cholesterol and HDL cholesterol and triglycerides. The
equation your doctor might use is:
LDL cholesterol = total cholesterol -- (HDL cholesterol +
Remember, only your doctor should determine the best way to
evaluate and interpret your cholesterol levels. Speak to your doctor
if you have any questions about your cholesterol levels or the best
way, given your unique needs, to reduce your risk for heart
This article was reviewed and updated June 2007.