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Cholesterol is measured with a simple blood test called a lipid panel or lipid profile. Lipids are fats and fatty substances, which include cholesterol, that you carry in your bloodstream to be used as a source of energy.
If your cholesterol levels are too high — as is the case for more than 12% of US adults and about 7% of US children — it puts you at an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease (CVD). That’s your risk of developing any type of heart disease or stroke as a result of the buildup of cholesterol in your arteries.
Since high cholesterol levels usually have no symptoms, it’s important to have your levels measured by a doctor. There are a few different components in a cholesterol test, and the optimal levels can depend on your age, sex, and medical history.
Here’s what you need to know about how cholesterol levels are measured and what’s considered healthy for you.
How is cholesterol measured?
A cholesterol test measures the following levels:
Low-density lipoproteins (LDL) are called the “bad” type of cholesterol. When LDL levels are too high, it increases your risk of developing CVD.
High-density lipoproteins (HDL) are called the “good” type of cholesterol. They help remove excess LDL cholesterol from the body — and you actually want higher HDL levels.
Triglycerides are fats in your blood that have been converted from calories your body doesn’t need right away. You’ll want lower triglycerides, as high levels can increase your CVD risk.
Total cholesterol is calculated using your HDL score + LDL score + 20% of your triglycerides score. You also want this to be lower, but it can’t be interpreted without your other scores.
Cholesterol levels for adults
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that people who are 20 or older have their cholesterol checked every four to six years.
And according to the US National Library of Medicine, men aged 45 to 65 and women aged 55 to 65 should have it every one to two years. That’s because as you age, you’re at an increased risk of high cholesterol.
Cholesterol levels chart for adults
It’s important to note that healthy cholesterol levels can look different for everyone, depending on other lifestyle factors, medical history, and genetics. But this chart can help give you some general guidelines:
If you have coronary artery disease or diabetes, your doctor will want to see lower LDL cholesterol levels — ideally, below 70 mg/dL — because you’re already at an increased risk of heart attack and stroke due the buildup of cholesterol in your arteries.
You’ll also need your cholesterol tested more regularly if you have cardiovascular disease or may be at risk.
Cholesterol levels for children
If you are 19 or younger, healthy cholesterol levels are different, because your cholesterol naturally increases as you age.
Children should be tested for the first time between ages 9 and 11, and then every five years after the first test, according to the US National Library of Medicine.
However, if there is a history of high cholesterol, heart attacks, or stroke in the family, children should start testing at the age of 2.
Cholesterol levels chart for children
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the US National Library of Medicine, here’s what cholesterol levels should look like for children under 19:
Some children are genetically predisposed to high cholesterol because of a condition called familial hypercholesterolemia (FH). The most effective way to diagnose FH is to get your child proper genetic testing from a specialist between the ages of 2 and 10, says Mohamed Al-Kazaz, MD, a cardiologist at Mount Sinai Hospital.
A child is also more likely to have high cholesterol if they have obesity, diabetes, liver or kidney disease, or an underactive thyroid, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
How to manage your cholesterol levels
If you have high cholesterol — as an adult or child — there are many ways to lower your cholesterol and get your levels under control.
Essentially, you’ll want to take steps to lower your LDL and triglyceride levels while raising your HDL levels, says Steven Reisman, MD, a cardiologist and director of the New York Cardiac Diagnostic Center. Here’s how to do it:
Improve your diet
You should reduce saturated fats, like red meat and full-fat dairy products, and eliminate trans fats found in fried food and processed meats.
Introduce foods containing healthy fats and soluble fiber, such as:
For more information on healthy diets for high cholesterol, learn about the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet.
It’s important to make sure you are reaching the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) recommended levels of physical activity.
Those age 18 and over should aim for at least 30 minutes of aerobic activity five times a week, such as walking, biking, jogging, or an exercise class. And if you’re aged six to 17, the CDC recommends being active for 60 minutes or more a day.
Read more about the best exercises for heart health and how to create a heart-healthy workout plan.
“If lifestyle changes aren’t enough, most people can be managed with medicines, and the most commonly used drugs are statins,” says Robert A. Kloner MD, PhD, Chief Science Officer of Huntington Medical Research Institutes.
People who are at high risk of a heart attack or stroke, such as those diagnosed with familial hypercholesterolemia or those have already had a heart attack or stroke — even if they don’t currently have high cholesterol levels — will probably be prescribed statins.
Learn more about the effectiveness and safety of statins, and whether they are right for you.
High cholesterol is a very treatable condition, whether you are a child or an adult. But you can’t treat what you don’t know — so it’s important to get tested, understand your cholesterol levels, and make the necessary lifestyle changes to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease.
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