If you’ve been through a cholesterol screening recently, you may be wondering what those numbers mean and how you can make sense of the results. Getting your cholesterol checked matters in assessing your heart health, but interpreting the test can be confusing.
This article will walk you through the key parts of a cholesterol screening and help you understand your results.
Exploring Cholesterol Screening
A cholesterol test, which is also referred to as a lipid profile or lipid panel, measures how much cholesterol and other fats you have circulating in your blood. Healthcare providers use a simple blood test to analyze levels of total cholesterol, HDL (good) cholesterol, LDL (bad) cholesterol, and triglycerides.
Doctors recommend getting your cholesterol screened at regular intervals based on your age, sex, family history, and heart disease risk factors. Cholesterol screening typically starts between ages 9 and 11 for children and then continues every five years until age 45 for males and 55 for females.
After that, annual testing is advised. Your doctor may suggest more frequent testing if you have elevated cholesterol or a family history of cardiac disease.
Key Parts of a Lipid Panel
When you get cholesterol screening results back, you’ll see numbers for the following components:
- Total cholesterol — This reflects the total amount of cholesterol in your blood from all sources, including LDL, HDL, and VLDL cholesterol.
- LDL cholesterol — Also referred to as bad cholesterol, LDL transports cholesterol to tissues and can accumulate on artery walls. The optimal goal is below 100 mg/dL.
- HDL cholesterol — Often dubbed good cholesterol, HDL carries cholesterol back to the liver to be eliminated. You want this number to be high — 60 mg/dL or greater protects your heart.
- Triglycerides — A form of fat in your bloodstream that your body converts into energy. Below 150 mg/dL is considered normal.
- VLDL cholesterol — Carries mostly triglycerides. High levels of this “very bad” cholesterol promote fatty buildup in arteries.
- Cholesterol ratios — Your total cholesterol divided by HDL level can indicate your risk. The ideal is under 5.
Cholesterol Level Ranges
Identifying healthy and unhealthy cholesterol levels requires looking at the results in the context of your age, sex, and heart disease risk status. Here are the general guidelines:
- For total cholesterol, below 200 mg/dL is considered desirable, while 200-239 mg/dL is borderline high. Over 240 mg/dL is considered high.
- For LDL cholesterol, below 100 mg/dL is optimal, whereas 100-129 mg/dL is near optimal. On the other hand, 130-159 mg/dL is bordering on high, while 160-189 mg/dL is considered high. Above 190 mg/dL is very high.
- For HDL cholesterol, below 40 mg/dL (men) and 50 mg/dL (women) is poor, while 40-59 mg/dL (men) and 50-59 mg/dL (women) needs improvement. Above 60 mg/dL helps lower risk.
- For triglycerides, below 150 mg/dL is optimal and 150-199 mg/dL is borderline. Comparatively, 200-499 mg/dL is high, and above 500 mg/dL is very high.
Interpreting Your Test Results
When your cholesterol screening comes back, your healthcare provider will review the numbers and determine if your levels are optimal or need improvement.
They will look at your total cholesterol, LDL, and HDL levels, along with your cholesterol ratio. This helps identify your risk status for heart disease and stroke. If your total and LDL cholesterol are above recommended ranges, your provider may diagnose hyperlipidemia, or high cholesterol.
This simply means some of your lipid levels are higher than they should be based on your profile and risk factors. To bring your cholesterol into a healthy zone, your doctor may suggest diet and exercise changes, quitting smoking, and cholesterol-lowering medications.
Your HDL level is also telling. Low HDL needs attention because it can indicate increased heart disease risk even if your total and LDL cholesterol are within normal limits. Options such as omega-3 fish oil supplements and aerobic activity can help boost protective HDL.
Bringing Cholesterol Into a Healthy Range
The good news about high cholesterol is that for most people, it can be improved through lifestyle measures:
- Following a heart-healthy diet with low amounts of saturated and trans fats, salt, and added sugar can help lower LDL. Focus on lean protein and plant-based foods.
- Daily physical activity helps boost HDL while lowering LDL and triglycerides. Aim for approximately 2.5 hours weekly of moderately intense exercise.
- Reaching or staying at a healthy body weight supports better cholesterol levels.
- Limiting your alcoholic drinks to one daily for women and two for men maximizes heart benefits.
For some individuals, cholesterol-lowering medications such as statins may also be prescribed to help reduce LDL when levels are very elevated.
But for many people, regular testing coupled with eating well, staying active, maintaining a healthy weight, and not smoking can bring cholesterol numbers into the target range.
Turn to Imperial Center Family Medicine to Manage Your Cholesterol Effectively
Keeping up with your cholesterol numbers is one of the smartest things you can do for your heart down the road. Getting those regular cholesterol checks lets you see where you stand now and make any needed tweaks.
While family history and age play a role in cholesterol levels, for many people, simple lifestyle adjustments go a long way. Work with your doctor to go over your test results, pinpoint any problem areas, and come up with a plan tailored to you.
Staying on top of your cholesterol as part of an overall heart-healthy lifestyle gives you the power to lower your risk and take control of your heart’s future.
We’ll help explain your test results and take the right steps together to keep your cholesterol in check and your heart in excellent shape for many years ahead.