Keeping track of your cholesterol levels can be an important tool in maintaining good health 3. The American Heart Association recommends that all adults 20 years and older should have their cholesterol levels checked every five years 13. Cholesterol levels can be broken down into three different categories, including HDL cholesterol, LDL cholesterol and total cholesterol. The American Heart Association has recommendations for each of these categories, as well as triglycerides, which is another type of blood lipid whose numbers are included in the total cholesterol level 13.

Cholesterol Basics

Cholesterol is a fat like substance that can build up in the walls of your arteries. As time passes and cholesterol accumulates it can begin to partially block off blood flow, which can lead to an insufficient blood supply to major organs. Once blood flow is completely cut off, a portion of the heart or brain, a heart attack or stroke occurs. However, not all cholesterol acts in the same way. While one form of cholesterol can increase the risk for heart disease and stroke, another form does just the opposite.

LDL Recommendations

Low-density lipoprotein, or LDL cholesterol, is commonly referred to as "bad" cholesterol due to its role in increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke. The American Heart Association classifies an LDL level of less than 100 milligrams per deciliter as desirable; 100 to 129 is considered near optimal; 130 to 159 is borderline high; 160 to 189 is high risk and an LDL level of above 190 is considered very high risk.

HDL Recommendations

High-density lipoprotein, or HDL cholesterol, is referred to as "good" cholesterol because it keeps plaque from building up on artery walls, thus lowering the risk of heart attack and stroke. The American Heart Association classifies an HDL level of less than 40 milligrams per deciliter for men and less than 50 for women as a major risk factor for heart disease. HDL levels above 60 offer some protection against heart disease.

Triglyceride Recommendations

Triglycerides are the most common type of blood lipid. People with high triglyceride levels are often affected by heart disease or diabetes. As with LDL cholesterol, lower numbers are better for triglycerides. The American Heart Association classifies triglyceride levels of less than 100 milligrams per deciliter as optimal; less than 150 is considered normal; 150 to 199 is borderline high; 200 to 499 is high risk and triglyceride levels over 500 are considered very high risk 3.

Total Cholesterol Recommendations

Your total cholesterol level can be calculated by adding your HDL and LDL cholesterol levels, plus 20 percent of your triglyceride level 3. The American Heart Association classifies a total cholesterol level of less than 200 milligrams per deciliter as desirable; 200 to 239 is considered borderline high risk and a total cholesterol level of 240 or higher is considered very high risk 13.

Risk Factors for High Cholesterol

Risk factors for high LDL cholesterol and triglycerides and low HDL cholesterol include:

  • obesity
  • poor diet
  • physical inactivity
  • heredity
  • age
  • cigarette smoking
  • alcohol consumption
  • very high carbohydrate diets

The National Institutes of Health recommends a diet containing less than seven percent of calories from saturated fat and less than 200 milligrams of dietary cholesterol per day 2. If you are overweight, losing weight and exercising regularly can both help boost HDL levels and lower LDL and triglycerides levels.