Home Am I at Risk? Your Cholesterol Numbers

Your Cholesterol Numbers

What do my cholesterol numbers mean?

The results of your cholesterol test will be compared with guidelines from the National Cholesterol Education Program of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health.1 Cholesterol and triglycerides are measured in milligrams per deciliter of blood (mg/dL). A deciliter is one-tenth of a liter.

What do my total cholesterol numbers mean?

Total Cholesterol Numbers
Category Level (mg/dL)
Desireable Less than 200
Borderline High 200 to 239
High 240 or higher


Your total cholesterol level should be below 200 mg/dL.1 Younger women tend to have lower cholesterol than younger men; cholesterol levels increase in men and women as they get older. After menopause, cholesterol levels rise an additional 10 to 20 mg/dL in women; beginning at age 45, a higher percentage of women than men have high cholesterol.2, 3 Having high total cholesterol increases your risk of heart disease. A 40-year-old women with high total cholesterol is twice as likely to develop heart disease than a woman of the same age with a level below 200 mg/dL.4

What do my LDL (bad) cholesterol numbers mean?

LDL Cholesterol Numbers
Category Level (mg/dL)
Optimal Less than 100
Near Optimal 100 to 129
Borderline High 130 to 159
High 160 to 189
Very High 190 or higher


A level of LDL (bad) cholesterol below 130 mg/dL is a good target for most women.1 However, research suggests that for bad cholesterol the lower the better, particularly for people who have heart disease or are at high risk (see: How low should my LDL (bad) cholesterol be?).

In women, LDL cholesterol increases an average of 2 mg/dL a year between the ages of 40 and 60. This increase is partly due to the decline in the hormone estrogen that occurs with the menopause.5 In a study of mostly postmenopausal women, those with the highest levels of bad cholesterol were 3 times more likely to suffer a heart attack or die from heart disease than women with the lowest levels.6

How low should my LDL (bad) cholesterol be?

Research suggests that for bad cholesterol, the lower the number the better, particularly for people who have heart disease or are at high risk. The higher your risk, the lower your LDL cholesterol goal.7 The risk factors listed below affect your LDL cholesterol goal—how many do you have?

* if your HDL cholesterol is 60 mg/dL or higher, subtract 1 risk factor from your count. If your final tally is 2 or more risk factors, use this calculator to measure your risk of having a heart attack in the next 10 years (your risk score). The table below shows your LDL (bad) cholesterol goal.

LDL Goals
Risk Level LDL Goal (mg/dL)
Risk score 20% or more
OR heart disease or diabetes
Less than 100
Risk score 10% to 20%
AND 2 or more risk factors
Less than 130
Risk score less than 10%
AND 2 or more risk factors
Less than 130
Zero or 1 risk factor Less than 160


If you are at very high risk, your doctor may suggest lowering your LDL (bad) cholesterol even further to less than 70 mg/dL.7 The very high risk category includes women who had a heart attack or anyone diagnosed with cardiovascular disease (e.g., stroke or chest pain) and one of these:

  • 2 or more heart disease risk factors (count those listed above and diabetes)
  • severe or poorly controlled risk factors (e.g., you smoke more than a pack a day)
  • the metabolic syndrome, a clustering of risk factors including higher than normal triglycerides and a large waistline (more than 35 inches in women)

What do my HDL (good) cholesterol numbers mean?

HDL Cholesterol Numbers
Category Level (mg/dL)
Low (Bad) Less than 40*
High (Good) 60 or higher
*Less than 50 mg/dL is considered relatively low for women.


A HDL (good) cholesterol level of 60 mg/dL or more is considered protective against heart disease.1 Remember that for HDL cholesterol, higher numbers are better. The official definition of a low level of good cholesterol is 40 mg/dL or lower, but because women’s HDL cholesterol levels are about 10 mg/dL higher than men’s,8 a level less than 50 mg/dL is considered relatively low for women.1

If your good cholesterol is between 40 to 50 mg/dL, you may be advised to make changes to your diet or to exercise more, but it is unlikely that you will be put on medication to raise your HDL cholesterol. The Framingham Heart study followed nearly 2,500 men and women for 12 years. Women with the lowest levels of HDL cholesterol had a 6-fold higher risk of suffering a heart attack than women with the highest levels.9

HDL cholesterol may be more important for women than men.10 It is estimated that a 1 mg/dL increase in HDL cholesterol cuts the risk of heart disease by 3% in women compared with 2% in men.11

What do my triglyceride numbers mean?

Triglyceride Numbers
Category Level (mg/dL)
Normal Less than 150
Borderline High 150 to 199
High 200 to 499
Very High 500 or higher


Women should aim for a triglyceride level at or below 150 mg/dL.1 High triglycerides may increase a woman’s risk of heart disease more so than a man’s.12, 13 In a combined analysis of 17 studies on triglycerides, an increase of nearly 90 mg/dL raised the risk of heart disease by 37% in women compared with 14% in men.14

How many women are affected by high cholesterol?

Prevalence of High Cholesterol15
  Borderline or High Total Cholesterol High LDL (bad) High HDL (good)
Total Population 50% 40% 23%
Women 50% 36% 13%
Women by Race
White 52% 37% 12%
Black 47% 35% 11%
Mexican-American 45% 31% 15%
Figures include adults 20 years or older


More than half of American women have borderline to high total cholesterol levels, about 40% have high LDL (bad) cholesterol, and 13% have low HDL (good) cholesterol.15 Between 1988-1994 and 1999-2002, levels of total and LDL (bad) cholesterol declined in US adults.16 This decline was most noticeable in men aged 60 years or older and women aged 50 years or more. It is probably due to the increased use of cholesterol-lowering medications.

Next: Causes and Treatment of High Cholesterol


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