University of Illinois Extension

What Do Those Cholesterol Numbers Mean?

Carol Schlitt, Nutrition and Wellness Educator

When you have your cholesterol levels tested, you'll probably get two sets of numbers.

LDL stands for low-density lipoprotein, and HDL means high-density lipoprotein. Both carry fats in the blood, but to different places and for different purposes.

LDL delivers triglycerides and cholesterol from the liver to the body by way of the arteries. Excess LDL and triglycerides in the blood increase the risk of plaque formation in the arteries.

In contrast, HDL "soaks up" excess cholesterol from the tissues and returns it to the liver for disposal from the body.

High levels of LDL cholesterol in the blood are a sign of increased risk of heart attack, but high levels of HDL cholesterol are associated with lower risk.

How much is too much or too little? As a general rule, total cholesterol should be less than 200 milligrams/deciliter (mg/dl) of blood. LDL cholesterol should be less than 130 mg/dl and HDL cholesterol 35 mg/dl or higher. If your cholesterol levels are outside these ranges, see your doctor for a personalized treatment plan, which may include cholesterol-lowering medication. Even with cholesterol-lowering drugs, you need to adopt heart-healthy life habits. These will help bring a larger drop in your blood cholesterol levels and reduce your risk of heart attack and other chronic diseases.

The good news is that you can help raise your HDL cholesterol, the good cholesterol, by exercising, by losing weight if you're overweight, and by quitting smoking if you smoke.