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When you visit your doctor, he or she may give you numbers about your cholesterol, but what do the numbers mean?


What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is waxy, fat-like substance found in all cells of the body. Your body needs cholesterol to function normally. Your body makes enough cholesterol for its needs. Cholesterol is carried in the blood stream in little packages called lipoproteins.

Why are the cholesterol levels important?

High blood cholesterol is a major risk factor for heart disease. Cholesterol can build up in the walls of your arteries; this build up is called plaque. The build up of plaque can cause narrowing of the arteries, called atherosclerosis. High blood cholesterol itself doesn’t cause symptoms so many people may not know that their cholesterol level is too high.

What is “high” blood cholesterol?

Cholesterol levels are determined by the amount of lipoproteins a person has. Lipoproteins are the little packages that carry cholesterol through the blood stream. There are two kinds of lipoproteins:

  • LDL, which stands for low-density lipoprotein. Think of this as “LOUSY” cholesterol. You want this number to be LOW.
    • Less than 100 mg/dl is considered optimal.
    • 100 to 129 mg/dl is near optimal.
    • 130 to 159 mg/dl is borderline high.
    • 160 to 189 mg/dl is high.
    • 190 mg/dl and above is very high.
  • HDL, which stands for high-density lipoprotein. Think of this as “HAPPY” cholesterol. You want this number to be HIGH.
    • 60 mg/dl or higher gives some protection against heart disease.
    • Less than 40 mg/dl for men and less than 50 mg/dl for women puts you at high risk.

Your doctor may give you a number for your Total Cholesterol.

  • Total Cholesterol:
    • Less than 200 mg/dl is the desirable level and places a person at relatively low risk of heart disease.
    • 200-239 mg/dl is considered borderline-high risk.
    • 240 mg/dl and over is considered high risk. People with these values typically have twice the risk of heart disease as people whose cholesterol level is below 200 mg/dl.

In addition, your doctor may give you a number for your Triglycerides, another type of fat in the blood. Triglycerides are a major component of the “lousy” LDL in the blood.

  • Triclycerides:
    • Less than 150 mg/dl is considered normal.
    • 150-199 mg/dl is borderline high.
    • 200-499 mg/dl is high.
    • 500 mg/dl and over is very high.

According to the Nikkei Disease Prevention Center in Seattle, Japanese Americans have higher total cholesterol and triglyceride levels than the U.S. population, native Japanese, and native Japanese urban workers.

What can I do to improve my cholesterol levels?

There are a number of things you can do to affect your cholesterol levels:

  • Have your cholesterol levels checked regularly. The National Cholesterol Education Program recommends that healthy adults have their cholesterol levels checked once every 5 years.
  • Maintain a healthy diet: Reduce the amounts of food that you eat that contain saturated fat, trans fatty acids or trans fats, and dietary cholesterol. Saturated fats come mainly from animal fat in the diet, but also some vegetable oils like palm oil. Trans fats are made from vegetable oils that have been hydrogenated to make them hard. Dietary cholesterol is found in some foods including egg yolks, meat, and dairy products.
  • Maintain a healthy weight: Lose weight if you are overweight. Being overweight tends to increase LDL levels, lower HDL levels, and increases total cholesterol levels.
  • Exercise: Lack of regular exercise can lead to weight gain which could raise your LDL level.
  • Stop smoking: Smoking injures blood vessels and speeds up atherosclerosis.
  • Medications: Your doctor may prescribe cholesterol lowering drugs.

There are some things that you cannot change, such as your genes, age, and sex, but studies have shown that it is never too late to try to improve your health and reduce your risk of disease.

Where can I get more information about cholesterol?

For more information:

American Heart Association:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: or (800) CDC-INFO or (800) 232-4636

National Heart, Lung & Blood Institute: