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Understanding Your Cholesterol Numbers

Cross section of artery showing blood flow.
Blood flows easily when arteries are clear.

Cross section of artery showing plaque buildup and restricted blood flow.
Less blood flows when cholesterol builds up in artery walls.

The higher your blood cholesterol, the greater your risk for heart attack, cardiovascular disease, or stroke. High cholesterol can cause any artery in your body to become narrow. That’s why you need to know your cholesterol level. If it’s high, you can take steps to bring it down. Eating the right foods and getting enough exercise can help. Some people also need medicine to control their cholesterol. Your healthcare provider can help you identify your personal risk through screenings tests and a discussion about different factors that many increase your chance for heart disease and stroke. These include family history, age, gender, ethnicity, and current health. Your healthcare provider can help you get started on a plan to control your cholesterol.

Checking your cholesterol

Your cholesterol is checked with a simple blood test. The results tell you how much cholesterol you have in your blood. Get checked as often as your healthcare provider suggests. Start monitoring your cholesterol levels regularly after age 20. Check it earlier if you have an increased risk for either high cholesterol or heart disease. If you have diabetes or high cholesterol, you may need your blood tested as often as every 3 months. As you work to lower your cholesterol, your numbers will change slowly. But they will change. Be patient and stay on track. Discuss your numbers with your healthcare provider. 

Your total cholesterol number

A blood test will give you a number for the total amount of cholesterol in your blood. The higher this number, the more likely it is that cholesterol will build up in your blood vessels. Even if your cholesterol is just slightly high, you are at increased risk for health problems.

My total cholesterol is: ________________

Your lipid numbers

Total cholesterol is just one part of the story. Cholesterol is made up of different kinds of fats (lipids). If your total cholesterol is high, knowing your lipid profile is important. The 2 most important lipids are HDL and LDL. Your healthcare provider will tell you if you should fast before having your lipids checked. Fasting means you don’t eat for a certain amount of time before the test is done. Along with cholesterol, triglyceride can also lead to blocked arteries. Triglycerides are another type of fat. Knowing your HDL, LDL, and triglyceride numbers, as well as your total cholesterol gives you a more complete picture of your cholesterol level:

  • HDL is called the “good” cholesterol. It moves the "bad" cholesterol out of the bloodstream and does not block your blood vessels. HDL levels are affected by how much you exercise and what you eat. This is the type of cholesterol that you don't want too little of. The higher the HDL, the better.

    My HDL cholesterol is:  ________________

  • LDL is called the “bad” cholesterol. This is because it can stick to your artery walls and block blood flow. LDL levels are most affected by what you eat and by your genes. LDL cholesterol is clustered with other cholesterol types including apolipoprotein B (apoB) and lipoprotein a [Lp(a)]. Higher levels of these cholesterol types can increase your risk for atherosclerosis.

    My LDL cholesterol is:  ________________

  • Triglyceride is a type of fat the body uses to store energy. Too much triglyceride can increase your risk for heart disease. Triglyceride levels should be under 150. If your triglyceride level is above 200 mg/dL your provider may want to look at another cholesterol type called apolipoprotein B (apoB).

    My triglyceride is:  ________________

High cholesterol is only one of the big risk factor for heart disease heart attack, stroke, and peripheral artery disease. If your cholesterol levels are higher than normal, your healthcare provider will help you with steps to take to lower your levels. Steps may include lifestyle changes such as diet, physical activity, and quitting smoking. Your provider may also prescribe medicine to lower bad cholesterol levels. Based on your other health issues and risk factors, your healthcare provider may have specific goals for treating your cholesterol. You may need to use different kinds of medicines that work on the different types of cholesterol.

Some people may need to take medicines called statins to control their cholesterol. This is in addition to eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise. Statins can help you stay healthy. They can also help prevent a heart attack or stroke. Also ask your provider about any side effects your medicines may cause. Let your provider know about any side effects you have. Make a plan to have regular cholesterol checks.

Work with your provider to know and understand what your cholesterol numbers mean, what your risk factors are and what are your treatment options and goals. Make sure you understand why these goals are important, based on your own health history and your family history of heart disease or high cholesterol. Stick with your treatment plan to reach the goals you set.

Online Medical Reviewer: Lu Cunningham
Online Medical Reviewer: Mandy Snyder APRN
Online Medical Reviewer: Steven Kang MD
Date Last Reviewed: 7/1/2019
© 2000-2019 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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