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A cholesterol test, otherwise known as a cholesterol panel, lipid profile, or lipid panel, is a test of the levels of cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood. Cholesterol can attach to the walls of the arteries and cause what is called plaque. When plaque builds up, it leads to atherosclerosis, which is commonly known as hardening of the arteries (a type of heart disease). 

Having cholesterol screenings is an important part of preventive care and an overall wellness plan. Knowing your blood cholesterol numbers can help you understand your risks so you can take and keep control of your health.

When to have a cholesterol test

Most doctors recommend every adult over 18 years of age have a total cholesterol test every five years. As long as you have healthy cholesterol levels and few risks for heart disease, you will probably fit into that category. But people who have high risk for heart disease should have a cholesterol test more frequently. Talk to your primary care doctor about when you should have your next cholesterol test. 

If you have high risk or you develop high cholesterol, you will likely have to have more frequent screenings. Some things that put you at higher risk of high cholesterol and heart disease are:

  • Having a family history of high cholesterol or heart disease
  • Having a personal history of heart attack or stroke
  • Being overweight
  • Having a sedentary lifestyle
  • Having diabetes
  • Eating an unhealthy diet
  • Smoking
  • Being over 45 (for a man) and 55 (for a woman)

What a cholesterol test covers

A cholesterol screening looks at four aspects of the fat in your blood, including:

  • High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol – High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is often called the good cholesterol. This is because it helps move low-density lipoprotein (LDL) away, which helps keep plaque from building up in the arteries.
  • Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol – Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is sometimes referred to as bad cholesterol. This is because it can cause plaque to build up in the arteries, leading to atherosclerosis. 
  • Triglycerides – Triglycerides are fats that live in the blood stream. Your body produces triglycerides when you eat calories you don’t need, and triglycerides are stored in the fat cells in case they are needed in the future. There are several risk factors for high triglycerides, including a sedentary lifestyle, eating too much sugar or having high blood sugar, being overweight, smoking, and drinking too much alcohol. 
  • Total cholesterol – Total cholesterol is a number that represents a combination of all blood cholesterol. 

How doctors interpret the results of a cholesterol test

The results of a cholesterol panel come back with four numbers: Total cholesterol, HDL, LDL, and triglycerides. Your doctor will look at the different numbers and consider them individually and as a whole in order to understand your risk.

The United States measures cholesterol levels in milligrams (mg), or more accurately, the milligrams of cholesterol per deciliter (dL) of blood. The ranges vary depending on the type of cholesterol, and the numbers that represent ideal versus poor vary as well. Here’s some more detailed information about what healthy cholesterol levels are and when levels become a concern.

Total cholesterol

  • Desirable – Below 200 mg/dL
  • Borderline – 200 to 239 mg/dL
  • High – 240 and up

HDL cholesterol

  • Poor – Below 40 mg/dL
  • Better – 40 to 59 mg/dL
  • Best – 60 mg/dL and up

LDL cholesterol

LDL cholesterol results are interpreted differently for people with heart disease and without it. 

How to interpret LDL results if you have heart disease

  • Optimal – Below 70 mg/dL
  • High – 100 to 159 mg/dL
  • Very high – 160 and up

How to interpret LDL results if you do not have heart disease

  • Optimal – Below 100 mg/dL
  • Near optimal – 100 to 129 mg/dL
  • Borderline – 130 to 159 mg/dL
  • High – 160 to 189 mg/dL
  • Very high – 190 and up

For people who don’t have heart disease but are at risk for developing it, the optimal LDL level is below 100mg/dL.


  • Desirable – Below 150 mg/dL
  • Borderline – 150 to 199 mg/dL
  • High – 200 to 499 mg/dL
  • Very high – 500 mg/dL and up

Typically, having a low total cholesterol and low triglycerides is healthy. However, if your HDL is too low, you may still need to make some changes to try to increase your HDL.

If you have high cholesterol or any other risk factors for heart disease, you may want to consider talking with a Beaumont heart or vascular specialist.

Cholesterol testing at Beaumont

At your next annual exam, ask your primary care doctor whether it’s time for you to have a cholesterol screening. If you have borderline or high cholesterol, talk with your doctor about what you can do to lower your cholesterol. Call 800-633-7377 today to make an appointment with a Beaumont doctor.