Medically Reviewed by Vincenta Faulkner, RD, CNSC, CCTD
Maintaining healthy cholesterol levels is a primary way to reduce your risk of heart disease.
When your blood cholesterol levels become too high, you may be at an increased risk for coronary heart disease due to atherosclerosis, which occurs when cholesterol builds up to form plaque deposits that can block your arteries.
The easiest way to directly prevent atherosclerosis is to directly target and lower your cholesterol levels. That’s much easier said than done, though, especially if you struggle with knowing how to pinpoint or define what a high cholesterol number is.
Maybe you just found out from your doctor that you received a high number on your most recent cholesterol test, or maybe you have a family history of high cholesterol levels and expect a high number at some point in the future.
Regardless of what got you thinking about your cholesterol levels, you’re probably here because you’re trying to understand how to lower your numbers, which means you may have to test your levels routinely.
Have no fear — take a deep breath and relax. Zizi is here to walk you through your ongoing cholesterol testing journey, step by step.
Here, we walk you through your cholesterol test numbers and how your results translate to your overall cholesterol levels. We discuss appropriate cholesterol level ranges by age and the best natural ways to target your high levels. Let’s get into it.
What Is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy lipid that your body naturally produces in the liver. Yes, you got that right — your body makes cholesterol on its own, and you actually need cholesterol to survive.
In fact, cholesterol is important for many natural cellular functions and processes, including cell membrane structure and hormone synthesis.
However, the catch is that cholesterol can be picked up and transported through the body by different proteins, and where cholesterol ends up getting deposited can either contribute to better health or worse health.
What Are the Types of Cholesterol?
When your doctor tells you that your cholesterol levels are too high, chances are they are referring to your LDL levels, or bad cholesterol, as opposed to your HDL levels, aka the good cholesterol.
Let’s explore the different “types” of cholesterol you might see in your test results list and what each means.
It may get a little sticky reading through these definitions, but the key takeaway is that high LDL cholesterol is bad, and high HDL cholesterol is good, and when people talk about “cholesterol” in general, they’re usually talking about LDL cholesterol, aka bad cholesterol.
LDL stands for low-density lipoprotein, which is one of several types of carrier proteins that basically picks up fatty substances (like cholesterol) and transports them through the body.
When people refer to LDL cholesterol, they’re really talking about cholesterol that’s attached to this protein.
LDL cholesterol is considered “the bad cholesterol” because it ultimately brings cholesterol to your artery walls and deposits it there, which can lead to plaque buildup called atherosclerosis. This buildup can ultimately cause a blockage that results in a heart attack or stroke.
Managing your LDL cholesterol levels can help prevent this buildup.
HDL stands for “high-density lipoprotein,” and the situation here is the same as above — this high-density protein carries around cholesterol, but instead of depositing in your arteries, it carries the cholesterol to your liver to be processed and removed from the body, which is why it’s considered “good” cholesterol.
HDL picks up extra cholesterol and takes it to your liver for breakdown and removal. Additionally, along the way, it can even knock free some of the LDL cholesterol that’s lodged in your arteries, further helping to manage your overall cholesterol levels.
Triglycerides are another type of lipid or fat in your bloodstream that derives from excess calories that you eat. Your body converts extra calories into triglycerides, and those triglycerides can later be broken down into smaller components for the purpose of energy.
Found in your bloodstream, it carries triglycerides to your tissues. You can contrast this with LDL, which carries cholesterol, as opposed to triglycerides, to your tissues.
As its name implies, total cholesterol measures the total amount of all cholesterol in your blood.
This is a number that results from your total cholesterol minus your HDL. Non-HDL includes LDL and other cholesterol types such as VLDL — i.e., it totals the “bad” cholesterols.
How Does My Age Affect My Cholesterol Level?
Cholesterol levels change based on many factors, including your weight, biological sex, and yes, your age. This is because, at different ages, you will have differing metabolism, diet, energy levels, and weight, which are all factors that influence cholesterol levels.
As such, a healthy cholesterol level for you might not be a healthy level for your friend who is ten years older than you or for your sibling who is 15 years younger.
In general, cholesterol levels elevate as your age increases — the older you become, the higher your cholesterol level becomes. The degree to which your levels increase with age also depends on your biological sex.
If you were born female, then your LDL levels may increase progressively once you pass age 20; the same is true if you were born male, although the progressive increase occurs at a more rapid weight in males compared to in females.
Likewise, your HDL levels will likely decrease in early adulthood and onward compared to your pre-pubescent years if you were born male. In contrast, if you are female, then your HDL numbers are more likely to remain consistent throughout your life, even as your age increases.
Overall, males often have higher total cholesterol levels when compared to females.
Lifestyle changes like quitting smoking and eating a diet full of whole grains, vegetables, beans, salmon, and fiber, may help you manage your cholesterol.
What Are Recommended Cholesterol Levels By Age?
Here, we discuss guidelines for healthy cholesterol levels if you are young (19 years or younger in age) versus from age 20 onward.
In general, when you are an adult, you should aim for your total cholesterol reading to be under 200 mg/dL in order to be healthy.
If you are 19 or younger, your total cholesterol level should fall at the 170 mg/dl or less mark to lie within the normal range.
Your non-HDL cholesterol should fall at 120 mg/dl or less, and your LDL should not fall below 100 gm/dl. On the contrary, your HDL should not rise to 45 mg/dl.
If you are a female aged 20 or older, your total cholesterol should fall between 125 to 200 mg/dl. Your non-HDL should be below 130 mg/dl, and your LDL below 100 mg/ dl.
Your HDL should be 50 mg/dl at minimum, and ideally more. If you’re a male, these numbers are the same, except that your HDL target should be anywhere 40 mg/dl or higher.
Different Scales for High Levels
There’s more to the spectrum, too. If your numbers fall above these guidelines, depending on how far outside the healthy limits they are. Around 200 - 239 mg/dl is considered borderline high, and 240 mg/dl is considered high.
The number also depends on if you already have heart disease or other contributing risk factors — if you do, then what your doctor normally would not classify as high might become a high level. For example, 100 - 120 mg/dl could be high in that case.
How Often Should I Check My Levels?
If you are older than 20 years of age, doctors usually recommend checking your cholesterol levels every five years. However, if you have contributing health factors that put you at a greater risk for cardiovascular disease, or a family history of heart disease, then you may need to check your levels more often.
How much more often depends on how high your risk level is for cardiovascular disease. You should check with your doctor to develop a plan for testing frequency, but if you are trying to lower your cholesterol levels quickly, then chances are you will need to take ongoing tests to check your levels and measure your progress consistently.
Additionally, as cholesterol levels tend to increase with age, you should check your levels once every one to two years if you are female and older than 55, or male and older than 45 years of age. Checking your levels involves a lipid panel, which will tell you your total numbers, LDL, HDL, VLDL, non-HDL, triglycerides, and the ratio of cholesterol to HDL.
You should not have anything to eat or drink besides water for nine to 12 hours before going into your blood test for best results.
Get Access to Monthly At-Home Testing With Zizi
In general, the older you are, the higher your cholesterol levels will be, as cholesterol levels tend to increase with age. Levels also tend to increase more overall in men compared to women. You should check your cholesterol once every year to two years if you are an older female or male.
Regardless of whether your levels are high, borderline high, or normal now, but with the potential to increase later, Zizi is here to support you in your journey to lower your cholesterol levels.
Sign up now to get early access to monthly at-home cholesterol testing, now that you know what your numbers mean.
You will also get access to a weekly cholesterol health course and clinically proven supplements to help reduce cholesterol. Heart health starts at home and is made easy with Zizi.
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