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  • Cholesterol Numbers: What Do They Really Mean?

  • Cholesterol Numbers

    Cholesterol Glossary:

    LDL Cholesterol:
    LDL stands for low-density lipoprotein cholesterol. This cholesterol is often labeled "bad" because it is the main source of cholesterol buildup and blockage in the arteries. The higher the LDL level, the higher the risk of heart disease

    HDL Cholesterol
    HDL stands for high-density lipoprotein cholesterol. This cholesterol is often labeled "good" because it carries cholesterol out of the arteries and back to the liver for reprocessing or excretion. The higher the HDL level, the lower the risk of heart disease.


    The higher your total blood cholesterol, the greater your risk of coronary heart disease and stroke. Cholesterol is a soft, fat-like substance found in the blood and in the cells of the body.

    "High cholesterol levels can cause plaque buildup in the arteries. This can cause arteries to narrow, reducing blood flow. Sometimes plaque ruptures and this usually causes a clot to form inside the artery," says Barbara Roberts, MD, FACC, board-certified cardiologist and director of the Women's Cardiac Center at the Miriam Hospital, "If a clot blocks an artery that brings blood to the heart, it causes a heart attack. If it blocks an artery that bring blood to the brain, it causes a stroke." High blood cholesterol has no symptoms, and many people have it without knowing it.

    For these reasons, it is essential for people of all ages to have their cholesterol numbers checked. However, sometimes the numbers can be a bit confusing. What are total cholesterol, HDL and LDL levels? Find out what your numbers really mean.

    Total Blood Cholesterol: What is Healthy?

    Total blood cholesterol is the most common measurement used by physicians. It is the total sum of all cholesterols. It is an important step in ascertaining your risk for heart disease. It is measured in milligrams per deciliter of blood (mg/dl).

    HealthyLess than 200 mg/dl
    Nearing High Risk200 to 239 mg/dl
    High Risk240 mg/dl or more


    Even if you currently fall in a healthy range, it is important, especially as you reach middle age, to have your blood cholesterol checked at least every three to five years. You should continue to maintain physical activity and a diet of foods low in saturated fat and cholesterol.

    Nearing High Risk

    One third of Americans fall into this category. If you are nearing the high risk category, you should have your cholesterol and HDL levels checked every year. Make sure to engage in physical activity for thirty minutes most days and consume foods low in saturated fat and cholesterol.

    Sometimes, people in this category have a high level of HDL or "good" cholesterol, making their risk for heart attack much less significant. Ask your doctor to interpret your results to ascertain your risks, because each person is different.

    High Risk

    If your numbers fall within this category, your levels are definitely too high. Your risk of heart attack and stroke is increased significantly.

    At this point, you need to speak to your physician about additional testing, and ways you can lower your cholesterol.

    The "Bad" Cholesterol: What are healthy LDL cholesterol levels?

    When too much LDL cholesterol, or "bad" cholesterol, circulates in the blood, it can lead to plaque, which in turn can rupture and cause clotting, resulting in heart attack or stroke. The lower your LDL numbers, the better. This number can actually be a more accurate predictor of risk than total cholesterol numbers.

    PerfectLess than 100 mg/dl
    Healthy100 to 129 mg/dl
    Borderline High Risk130 to 159 mg/dl
    High Risk160 to 189 mg/dl
    Very High Risk190 mg/dl or more

    If you fall into any of the high risk categories, it is important that you speak to your doctor about a diet and exercise plan to help lower your LDL levels. Prescription drugs may be needed.

    The "Good" Cholesterol: What are healthy HDL cholesterol levels?

    HDL cholesterol is known as the "good" cholesterol because a high level of it protects against the formation of plaque. HDL can actually remove cholesterol from plaque, taking it to the liver from where it can be excreted into the bile. In addition, HDL fights inflammation, and inflammation is associated with an increased risk of plaque formation. It is when your HDL levels are low that you need to be concerned about heart disease.

    Healthy for women50 to 60 mg/dl
    Healthy for men40 to 50 mg/dl
    Risk AreaLess than 40 mg/dl

    If you have low HDL levels, you can help raise them by maintaining a healthy weight, exercising 30 to 60 minutes on most days, and quitting smoking.