Understanding your lipid profile and heart disease risk

Blood cells with droplets

Everyone has heard about the connection between high levels of cholesterol and coronary heart disease, which is blamed for about 500,000 deaths every year in the U.S.

You’re probably concerned about your cholesterol level, but if you’re like most, you find the language about cholesterol and other lipids — fatty substances in the body — confusing.

Here’s a quick guide to lipids to answer your questions.

Understand what the different types of lipids are, what the numbers mean, and what you can do to improve your lipid profile in an effort to reduce your risk of developing heart disease.

Look at the different lipid levels, and check your risk. Lipid levels are expressed as milligrams of lipid per deciliter of blood (mg/dl). The symbols used with these numbers are explained below.

Total Cholesterol

Your total cholesterol level provides a rough estimate of heart disease risk.

Cholesterol is transported through the blood stream by lipoproteins (lipid plus protein) carriers. Total cholesterol level includes the amount of cholesterol carried by HDL (high-density lipoprotein) and LDL (low-density lipoprotein), as well as a small amount carried by very-low-density lipoprotein. This measurement, however, does not give a specific value for each lipoprotein. The total cholesterol test is used to screen for heart disease risk or to monitor general progress in those on a special diet or medication for high cholesterol.

What’s your cholesterol level?

  • Desirable: Lower than 240 mg/dl
  • Borderline high: 200-239 mg/dl
  • High-risk: Higher than  240 mg/dl

HDL Cholesterol

HDL-C is known as the “good” cholesterol because higher HDL, levels are generally associated with lower risk for heart disease. HDL-C is believed to take excess cholesterol away from coronary arteries. The more HDL cholesterol you have, the better.

What’s your HDL cholesterol level?

  • Desirable: Higher than 35 mg/dl

LDL Cholesterol

LDL-C is known as the “bad” cholesterol because too much LDL in the blood is associated with blockage of the arteries in the heart. LDL cholesterol is calculated in those who have a high total cholesterol level or other risk factors for heart disease.

What’s your LDL cholesterol level?

  • Desirable: Less than 130 mg/dl
  • Borderline: 130-159 mg/dl
  • High-risk: higher than 160 mg/dl


Triglyceride is a lipid that helps store fat in the body. High glyceride levels can cause inflammation of the pancreas, and elevated levels of triglyceride may play a role in heart disease risk

What’s your triglyceride level?

  • Desirable: Lower than 250 mg/dl

Review your lipid tests with your physician. Assessing heart disease risk is a process that should be performed under your doctor’s guidance. Together you can develop your personal plan for action. Some patients, such as those with high total cholesterol, hypertension, or coronary heart disease (among other patient groups), should have a complete lipoprotein profile, which includes determinations of total cholesterol, HDL-C, triglyceride, and LDL-C.

You can take action to improve your lipid profile to help reduce your risk of heart disease.

Stop smoking.
Smoking lowers your HDL, (“good”) cholesterol level. Smoking in itself is a major risk factor for heart disease

Change the way you Eat.
Low-fat, low-cholesterol eating benefits all your lipid levels.

Lose weight if necessary.
A healthy, low-fat diet will also help you lose weight, and that helps all your lipids, too.

Start exercising.
Talk to your doctor about a sensible exercise plan for you. An active lifestyle helps all the lipids, keeps you trim and fit, and give you energy, too!