Key Cholesterol Terms: What You Need to Know

When it comes to your heart health, understanding your blood cholesterol levels can be lifesaving. Cholesterol levels play an important role in determining your risk for getting coronary heart disease. When too much cholesterol is present in the blood, plaque may form in the arteries reducing blood flow to the heart. Over time, the plaque buildup can cause atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), which can lead to heart disease. The higher your blood cholesterol, the greater your risk.

Types of Cholesterol

Low density lipoproteins (LDL)-LDL ("bad") cholesterol can cause plaque buildup in on the walls of the arteries. The lower your LDL cholesterol, the lower your risk for heart attack and stroke.

What the numbers mean:

  • Less than 100 mg/dL               Optimal
  • 100 to 129 mg/dL                     Near optimal/Above optimal
  • 130 to 159 mg/dL                     Borderline high
  • 160 to 189 mg/dL                      High
  • 190 mg/dL and above                Very high


High Density Lipoproteins (HDL)-HDL ("good") cholesterol helps the body rid itself of bad cholesterol in the blood. With HDL cholesterol, higher levels are better. Low HDL levels (less than 40 mg/dL for men and less than 50 mg/dL for women) put you at greater risk for heart disease.


What the numbers mean:

  • For men: 40 to 50 mg/dL          Average
  • For women: 50 to 60 mg/dL     Average
  • 60 mg/dL or higher                   Heart protective


Triglycerides-Triglycerides are a form of fat. High triglyceride levels signal a high total cholesterol level, including high LDL cholesterol and low HDL cholesterol levels.


What the numbers mean:

  • Less than 150 mg/dL                 Normal
  • 150 to199 mg/dL                        Borderline high
  • 200 to 499                                    High
  • 500 mg/dL                                   Very high


Total Cholesterol Levels-If your total blood cholesterol, including HDL, LDL and triglyceride, levels are below 200 mg/dL and you have no other risk factors for heart disease, your chances of developing coronary heart disease is very low.


What the numbers mean:

  • Less than 200 mg/dL                  Desirable
  • 200 to 239 mg/dL                       Borderline-high risk
  • 240 mg/dL and above                 High risk

Other factors play a role in heart disease risk as well, including diet, weight, family history, age, gender, smoking, lack of exercise, other health conditions such as diabetes and certain medications, which can raise cholesterol levels.

Talk to your doctor about how your cholesterol levels and other factors affect your risk for developing heart disease and what you can do to reduce that risk.