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What You Need to Know About Cholesterol Levels

Thursday 19 November 2020
4 minute(s) read

Table of Contents

I. What is High Cholesterol?

II. Taking a Cholesterol Test

a. What to Expect

b. Who Should Get Tested?

III. What is a Healthy Cholesterol Level?

a. Children

b. Adults

What is High Cholesterol?

High cholesterol is a symptomless condition that can cause severe complications, including heart disease, heart attack, stroke, and oxygen deprivation. It is one of the most common conditions in the United States, but because it is symptomless, many patients may be unaware that they have it.

Cholesterol is a natural wax-like substance that is produced by the liver. It is a type of fat known as a lipid and has an important function in creating hormones and cell membranes. There are two types of cholesterol: LDL (low-density lipoproteins) and HDL (high-density lipoproteins). LDL is often referred to as “bad cholesterol.” This is because excess LDL can accumulate and cause a build-up of cholesterol in the arteries. When this cholesterol plaque occurs, it can effectively narrow the arteries, which is what causes complications. [1]

A hand holding medication pills with medication blister packs in the background

For those with high cholesterol, prescription medications are available. Medications such as atorvastatin (Lipitor), rosuvastatin (Crestor), and ezetimibe (Zetia) can help reduce cholesterol levels.

More than one in three American adults have high cholesterol and the only way to be sure is to have your cholesterol levels checked. [2] Keep reading to learn more about how cholesterol is measured, and what your cholesterol level means.

Taking a Cholesterol Test

Cholesterol is measured using a type of blood test known as a lipoprotein panel (or lipid profile). This test measures both cholesterol and triglycerides, another form of lipids. A cholesterol test can determine not just your cholesterol levels but also your risk of developing blocked arteries.

a. What to Expect

The test involves inserting a needle and drawing blood. Typically, a small amount of blood is taken from a vein in the upper arm. This test should only take a few minutes and is relatively painless.

You will usually be required to fast with no foods or liquids other than water for up to 12 hours before a test. Because of this, cholesterol tests are typically done in the mornings, as this makes it easier to fast.  [3]

Three bottles of water

b. Who Should Get Tested?

The American Heart Association recommends that all adults over the age of 20 have a cholesterol test taken every four to six years. [4] This is because the condition is symptomless and being tested is the only way to know your cholesterol level.

However, some people may need more regular testing if they previously had high cholesterol, or if they are taking cholesterol-lowering medications. Additionally, those that have a higher risk of developing coronary artery disease may also require more frequent testing. Risk factors for coronary artery disease include:

  • Having a family history of high cholesterol
  • Having a family history of heart attacks
  • Being overweight
  • Being physically inactive
  • Having an unhealthy diet
  • Having diabetes
  • Smoking
  • Being a female over 55 or male over 45 [3] 

What is a Healthy Cholesterol Level?

There is not a single healthy cholesterol number for everybody. Instead, healthy levels of cholesterol depend upon your age and your gender. In order to have a healthy level of cholesterol, you should have your total cholesterol, LDL (“bad cholesterol”), and HDL (“good cholesterol”) measured. Cholesterol tests are measured in milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL). [5]

A gloved hand holding a syringe filled with blood

a. Children

Your risk of high cholesterol increases as you get older. People that are 19 and younger have a lower risk than other age groups. However, this age group also has the lowest threshold for high cholesterol. Total cholesterol levels should be less than 170 mg/dL.

Total Cholesterol: Total cholesterol levels should be lower than 170 mg/dL. Levels between 170 mg/dL and 200 mg/dL are considered borderline high, while anything over 200 mg/dL is considered high.

LDL: Healthy LDL levels for children are under 110 mg/dL. Between 110 mg/dL and 129 mg/dL is borderline elevated and over 130 mg/dL is elevated.

HDL: HDL levels in children should be higher than 45 mg/dL. Less than 40 mg/dL is considered low and anything between 40 mg/dL and 45 mg/dL is borderline. [6]

b. Adults

For both men and women over 20, a total cholesterol level of 200 mg/dL or less is still considered healthy, as opposed to 170 mg/dL for under 20s. Women are less likely than men to have high cholesterol. However, cholesterol often increases during menopause. [7]

Total Cholesterol: For adults, total cholesterol levels should be lower than 200mg/dL, and the lower, the better. Total cholesterol levels between 200 mg/dL and 239 mg/dL are borderline elevated, while over 240 mg/dL is considered elevated.

LDL: Levels of LDL should be less than 100 mg/dL for most adults and less than 70 mg/dL for adults with coronary artery disease. Levels between 130 mg/dL and 159 mg/dL are borderline while anything over 160 mg/dL is high.

HDL: HDL levels differ for men and women. For men, HDL levels should be above 40 mg/dL, while for women, they should be higher than 50 mg/dL. For both men and women, anything lower than 40 mg/dL is considered low. [6]

The content in this article is intended for informational purposes only. This website does not provide medical advice. In all circumstances, you should always seek the advice of your physician and/or other qualified health professionals(s) for drug, medical condition, or treatment advice. The content provided on this website is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.