High cholesterol levels are a risk factor for atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and heart disease. And cholesterol problems are very common. In fact, nearly one in three U.S. adults has high cholesterol. Because of the heart disease risks, it’s important to understand what a normal cholesterol level is and what your levels mean for your health.
The first thing to know is that not all cholesterol is bad for you. Your body needs some cholesterol for normal body functions, like making hormones. There are two main types of cholesterol:
- LDL (low-density lipoprotein) or “bad” cholesterol is linked to a higher risk of heart disease. It can build up in the walls of your blood vessels and restrict blood flow.
- HDL (high-density lipoprotein) or “good” cholesterol is linked to a lower risk of heart disease.
The different types of cholesterol can be confusing, so it’s important to review the results of cholesterol tests with your doctor. Your doctor can help you understand how your cholesterol levels affect your risk for heart disease — and make a treatment plan if you need it.
But in case you want to review what your blood work means after you get home from the doctor’s office, we’ll go over the meaning of different cholesterol blood tests here.
How Does a Cholesterol Test Work?
Your doctor will test your cholesterol regularly. How often you need to get tested will depend on your age and risk for heart disease. You’ll need a blood test called a lipid panel to check your cholesterol levels.
When you’re scheduled for your lipid panel, you’ll need to avoid eating or drinking anything for at least nine hours before the test. The results of your lipid panel will include several numbers:
- Total cholesterol
- LDL cholesterol
- HDL cholesterol
- Non-HDL cholesterol
These levels are all measured in mg/dL (milligrams per deciliter of blood). The normal or healthy level for each one is based on your age and sex. Learn more about each part of the lipid panel.
Total Cholesterol Level
Your total cholesterol level is the sum of all the cholesterol in your blood. This includes not only HDL and LDL, but also intermediate-density lipoprotein (IDL) and very-low-density lipoproteins (VLDLs).
A healthy range for total cholesterol depends on your age. If you’re age 19 or younger, a normal total cholesterol level for you is less than 170 mg/dL. If you’re age 20 or older, a normal TC level for you is within the range of 125 to 200 mg/dL.
HDL Cholesterol Level
HDL is the main type of cholesterol that’s considered good for your health. You want higher HDL cholesterol levels, because it can lower your risk of heart disease.
A healthy range for HDL cholesterol depends on your age and sex:
- For everyone ages 19 or younger, a normal HDL level is more than 45 mg/dL.
- For men ages 20 or older, a normal HDL level is more than 40 mg/dL.
- For women ages 20 or older, a normal HDL level is more than 50 mg/dL.
Non-HDL Cholesterol Level
Your non-HDL cholesterol level represents all types of cholesterol other than HDL in your blood, including LDL and other types. You get this number by subtracting your HDL level from your total cholesterol. Non-HDL includes cholesterol types that increase your risk for heart disease, so in general, you want to keep these levels lower.
A healthy range for non-HDL depends on your age:
- If you’re 19 or younger, a normal non-HDL level is less than 120 mg/dL.
- If you’re 20 or older, a normal non-HDL level is less than 130 mg/dL.
LDL Cholesterol Level
LDL is the main type of cholesterol most closely linked to an increased risk of heart disease. In general, you want to keep your LDL levels lower.
If you have chronically high LDL levels, it can lead to the development of atherosclerosis, where cholesterol builds up in the walls of your blood vessels. If these buildups (called plaques) get too large, it can restrict blood flow and lead to stroke or heart attack.
A healthy range for LDL cholesterol is less than 100 mg/dL, regardless of your age or sex.
Triglycerides are not a type of cholesterol. But they’re still included in a lipid panel because they’re a type of fat molecule that can increase your risk of heart disease.
A healthy triglyceride level is below 150 mg/dL. Try to keep your triglycerides below this level.
Healthy Cholesterol Range Chart
Use this handy chart to see the healthy cholesterol number ranges for each type, depending on your age and sex. And remember, if you’re not sure what your blood test results mean, talk with your doctor.
|Cholesterol type||Age 19 or younger||Age 20 or older|
|Total cholesterol||Less than 170 mg/dL||125 to 200 mg/dL|
|HDL (good)||More than 45 mg/dL||50 mg/dL or higher for women|
40 mg/dL or higher for men
|Non-HDL||Less than 120 mg/dL||Less than 130 mg/dL|
|LDL (bad)||Less than 100 mg/dL||Less than 100 mg/dL|