How to Understand the Results of Your Cholesterol Test

Wednesday, October 4, 2006 - 2:37pm

By Rose Giordano

The phone rings. It is the nurse from your doctor's office calling to give you the results of your blood cholesterol test. After quickly scribbling down the numbers you take a step back and say, "What do all those numbers mean, anyway?" Good question.

Total cholesterol level numbers

According to the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) guidelines for high cholesterol detection:

  • Total cholesterol levels should be under 200mg/dl
  • Total cholesterol levels between 200-239mg/dl is considered at borderline risk for heart disease
  • Anything over 240mg/dl is considered high.

As a rule, the higher the number, the greater the risk.

HDL: Some cholesterol is good

Next, look at the High Density Lipoprotein (HDL) number. According to health professionals and scientists, this is good cholesterol. HDL's job is to act as a scavenger of fatty acids (i.e. fat molecules) that are freely floating around in your bloodstream, and taking them out of circulation. This is important because when these fatty acids have nowhere else to go, they can collect inside your arteries and form plaque.

A healthy number for HDL is between 40 to 60mg/dl. The more the better!

LDL: Some cholesterol is bad

Moving down the list you see LDL, which stands for Low Density Lipoprotein. Referred to as bad cholesterol, it has the important role of delivering fatty acids to the cells inside the blood vessels. However, problems arise when too many LDLs are in the bloodstream. If they float around for too long, they can become damaged (oxidized), spill their contents, and overwhelm the scavenger HDLs. When this happens, the fatty acids have nowhere to go, so they collect in the artery walls and become plaque. This is the beginning stage of atherosclerosis.

A healthy number for LDL is less than 100mg/dl.

What do the triglycerides levels mean?

If you have the numbers for your triglyceride levels, there are a couple things that you should know. A triglyceride is a common type of body fat. The levels in the bloodstream vary by age and gender. Compare your triglycerides with your other cholesterol levels. If you have high triglycerides and high LDL cholesterol, your risk for developing atherosclerosis increases.

A healthy number for triglycerides is less than 150mg/dl.

For further information on reducing your triglyceride level see the following articles from TheDietChannel: Cholesterol and Triglycerides: What Foods Lower Your Risk? and Triglycerides: How Can You Lower Them?

What can you do about the numbers?

Do all your numbers fall within healthy levels? Great job and keep up the good work!

If you have undesirable cholesterol levels, here are some basic lifestyle changes that can get you on track:

  • Stop smoking
  • Increase dietary fiber (i.e. cereals, whole grains, fruits, vegetables)
  • Increase physical activity
  • Avoid fatty foods that contain saturated fats
  • Avoid processed foods that contain trans fats
  • If appropriate, lose weight. This is especially true for people with excess fat around their midsection.

Knowing your cholesterol levels and their effects on your health is an important step towards the prevention of heart disease. In 2001, the Third Report of the Expert Panel on Detection, Evaluation, and High Cholesterol in Adults released by NCEP recommended that everyone 20 years old and above should have their cholesterol tested every 5 years. Always consult your doctor with any questions you may have regarding your cholesterol levels.