Information to the Public
Cholesterol: What Your Level Means

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy substance your body uses to protect nerves, make cell tissues and produce certain hormones. All the cholesterol your body needs is made by your liver. Cholesterol in the food you eat (such as eggs, meats and dairy products) is extra, and too much cholesterol can have negative impacts on your health.

Why is a high cholesterol level unhealthy?

While some cholesterol is needed for good health, too much cholesterol in your blood can raise your risk of having a heart attack or stroke.

The extra cholesterol in your blood may be stored in your arteries (blood vessels that carry blood from your heart to the rest of your body). Buildup of cholesterol (called plaque) in your arteries will cause your arteries to narrow and harden (called atherosclerosis). Large deposits of cholesterol can completely block an artery.

If an artery that supplies blood to the muscles in your heart becomes blocked, a heart attack can occur. If an artery that supplies blood to your brain becomes blocked, a stroke can occur.

When should I start having my cholesterol level checked?

Men aged 35 and older and women aged 45 and older should have their cholesterol checked yearly. Depending on what your cholesterol level is and what other risk factors for heart disease you have (see the box below), you may need to have it checked more often.

Risk factors for heart disease

  • Having already had a heart attack
  • Being a man 45 years of age or older
  • Being a women 55 years of age or older
  • Being a woman who is going through menopause or has completed menopause
  • Having an immediate family member (parent or sibling) who had heart disease
  • Smoking cigarettes
  • Having high blood pressure or diabetes
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Being inactive

Are there different types of cholesterol?

Yes. Cholesterol travels through the blood in different types of packages, called lipoproteins.

Low-density lipoproteins (LDL) deliver cholesterol to the body. High-density lipoproteins (HDL) remove cholesterol from the bloodstream.

This explains why too much LDL cholesterol is bad for the body, and why a high level of HDL is good. It's the balance between the types of cholesterol that tells you what your cholesterol level means (see the box below).

For example, if your total cholesterol level is high because of a high LDL level, you may be at higher risk of heart disease or stroke. If your total level is high only because of a high HDL level, you're probably not at higher risk.

Total cholesterol level

  • Less than 200 is best.
  • 200 to 239 is borderline high.
  • 240 or more means you're at increased risk for heart disease.

LDL cholesterol levels

  • Below 100 is ideal for people who have a higher risk of heart disease.
  • 100 to 129 is near optimal.
  • 130 to 159 is borderline high.
  • 160 or more means you're at a higher risk for heart disease.

 

HDL cholesterol levels

  • Less than 40 means you're at higher risk for heart disease.
  • 60 or higher greatly reduces your risk of heart disease.

What can I do to improve my cholesterol level?

If you have high cholesterol, it may be necessary for you to make some lifestyle changes. If you smoke, stop smoking. Exercise regularly. If you're overweight, losing just 5 to 10 pounds can help lower cholesterol levels. Make sure to eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fish- all of which promote heart health. Avoid saturated and trans fats, which can raise cholesterol levels. Also limit your overall cholesterol intake to less than 300 milligrams (200 milligrams if you have heart disease) per day.

More information is available in our handout on how to make healthier food choices.

What about medication to lower cholesterol?

Depending on your risk factors, if healthy eating and exercise don't work after 6 months to 1 year, your doctor may suggest medication to lower your cholesterol level.

For more information about this topic, visit our handout on cholesterol-lowering medicines.

Why did my doctor prescribe cholesterol-lowering medicine for me?

Lowering your "bad" cholesterol (also called LDL, or low-density lipoprotein) can reduce your risk of having a heart attack or stroke. A number of lifestyle changes can help you improve your cholesterol level (see the box below). However, if these lifestyle changes don't help after about 6 months to 1 year, your doctor may suggest medicine to lower your cholesterol.

Even if you take cholesterol-lowering medicine, it's important to keep up with your lifestyle changes. Eating a healthy diet and being physically active can make your medicine more effective. Your doctor can give you tips on how to make healthy food choices and include physical activity in your daily routine.

Lifestyle changes

  • Avoid smoking cigarettes or using any other tobacco product.
  • Get regular physical activity.
  • Eat a healthy low-fat diet that includes lots of fruits and vegetables.
  • Limit how much alcohol you drink.