According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between 33 and 43 percent of adult men in the U.S. have elevated total cholesterol levels. Since too much cholesterol in the blood is linked to an increased risk of heart attack and stroke, measuring and treating cholesterol is an important part of preventive health care. However, cholesterol numbers are only one risk factor in the big picture of cardiovascular disease risk, so to understand your personal cholesterol targets and your risk of heart attack and stroke, talk with your doctor.
Cholesterol is a waxy substance made by the body, and found in foods of animal origin. This substance is a building block of certain hormones, essential in the digestion of dietary fats and a component of all cell membranes. For transportation in the blood, cholesterol is packaged into lipoproteins, and 2 of these -- the LDL or "bad" cholesterol, and the HDL, or "good" cholesterol -- are commonly tested to assess cardiovascular disease risk. In particular, too much LDL and not enough HDL can contribute to a condition known as atherosclerosis, or plaque buildup in the artery walls which can slow or block blood flow -- leading to complications such as heart attack and stroke.
Normal Cholesterol Levels
In general, similar cholesterol targets apply to men and women, although before age 55, women tend to have lower LDL levels compared to men, and at any age, men tend to have lower HDL levels than women. According to the CDC, it's desirable for adults to achieve total cholesterol levels below 200 mg/dL, LDL levels less than 100 and HDL levels above 40. However, the stance of the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology is that cholesterol numbers should not be the main focus in assessing cardiovascular disease risk, and that cholesterol levels -- and gender -- be considered in context with a variety of other known risk factors, including age, smoking status, presence of diabetes or high blood pressure, and family history of heart disease.
Reducing Heart Disease Risk
There are no symptoms of high cholesterol, so it's important to get tested and have your doctor interpret your results. If you have abnormal cholesterol levels, your doctor can review all of your risk factors and determine a personalized treatment approach -- which will include healthy lifestyle behaviors such as choosing a healthful diet, staying physically active and not smoking. Depending on your cholesterol levels and calculated risk of heart disease and stroke, your doctor may also recommend you take a statin, a cholesterol lowering medication.
To understand your risk of heart attack and stroke and your normal cholesterol ranges, talk with your doctor. If you want to learn how to change your diet to improve your cholesterol readings and lower your risk of cardiovascular disease, ask your doctor for a referral to a dietitian.
Reviewed by Kay Peck, MPH RD
- Journal of the American College of Cardiology: 2013 ACC/AHA Guideline on the Treatment of Blood Cholesterol to Reduce Atherosclerotic Cardiovascular Risk in Adults
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: About High Cholesterol
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Knowing Your Risk: High Cholesterol