What do the different cholesterol numbers mean?

Robert S. Kaufmann, MD
Internal Medicine
Everyone age 20 and older should have their cholesterol measured at least once every 5 years. It is best to have a blood test called a "lipoprotein profile" to find out your cholesterol numbers. This blood test is done after a 9- to 12-hour fast and gives information about your:
  • Total cholesterol
  • LDL (bad) cholesterol – the main source of cholesterol buildup and blockage in the arteries
  • HDL (good) cholesterol – helps keep cholesterol from building up in the arteries
  • Triglycerides– another form of fat in your blood

If it is not possible to get a lipoprotein profile done, knowing your total cholesterol and HDL cholesterol can give you a general idea about your cholesterol levels. If your total cholesterol is 200 mg/dL or more or if your HDL is less than 40 mg/dL, you will need to have a lipoprotein profile done.

HDL (good) cholesterol protects against heart disease, so for HDL, higher numbers are better.

A level less than 40 mg/dL is low and is considered a major risk factor because it increases your risk for developing heart disease. HDL levels of 50 mg/dL or more help to lower your risk for heart disease.

The lower your LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, the lower your risk for a heart attack and stroke will be. A LDL level below 100 mg/dL is optimal. Those at high risk should be closer to 70 mg/dL.

Triglycerides can also raise heart disease risk. Levels that are borderline high (150-199 mg/dL) or high (200 mg/dL or more) may need treatment in some people.

This answer from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute has been reviewed and/or edited by Dr. Robert S. Kaufmann.
The National Cholesterol Education Program has guidelines for total cholesterol levels as well as for low-density lipoprotein (LDL, the "bad" cholesterol), HDL (high-density lipoprotein, the "good" cholesterol), and triglycerides.

Total cholesterol -- Category
  • Less than 200 mg/dL -- Desirable
  • 200-239 mg/dL -- Borderline high
  • 240 mg/dL and above High
LDL cholesterol -- Category
  • Less than 100 mg/dL -- Optimal (below 70 mg/dL for people at very high risk)
  • 100-129 mg/dL -- Near optimal/above optimal
  • 130-159 mg/dL -- Borderline high
  • 160-189 mg/dL -- High
  • 190 mg/dL and above -- Very high
HDL cholesterol -- Category
  • Less than 40 mg/dL -- Low (representing increased risk)
  • 60 mg/dL and above -- High (heart-protective)
Triglycerides -- Category
  • Less than 150 mg/dL -- Normal
  • 150-199 mg/dL -- Borderline high
  • 200-499 mg/dL -- High
  • 500 mg/dL and above -- Very high
Most of the time there are no symptoms associated with elevated cholesterol. Serum cholesterol tends to increase with age, especially among women, who have reduced estrogen levels as they reach menopause. This is why it is important to have your blood levels checked regularly by your healthcare provider. Here are the cholesterol numbers you should know.
  • Total cholesterol: Less than 200 mg/dL is a desirable level that puts you at lower risk for coronary heart disease. A cholesterol level of 200 mg/dL or higher raises your risk.
  • HDL (good) cholesterol: 60 mg/dL and above is considered protective against heart disease. Less than 40mg/dL (for men) and less than 50mg/dL (for women) are considered a major risk factor for heart disease.
  • LDL (bad) cholesterol: Less than 100mg/dL is optimal, 200 to 99 mg/dL and 160 to 189 mg/dL are considered high.
  • Triglycerides: Less than 100 mg/dL is optimal. High triglyceride levels combined with low HDL or high LDL can increase risk for heart disease.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.