Everyone should pay attention to their cholesterol levels, but some people may need to pay more attention to theirs than others.
High cholesterol is linked to heart attacks, risk of stroke, and other life-threatening medical conditions.
With this in mind, it’s important to be aware of your cholesterol levels in order to keep them balanced and healthy.
A good place to start is knowing what your cholesterol levels should look like—and how often you should get tested—depending on your age.
No matter how old you are, it’s never too early to start thinking about your cholesterol—especially if high cholesterol runs in your family.
It’s also good to know what cholesterol is and the difference between HDL and LDL cholesterol (and why you should care!), recommended cholesterol levels by age, what may impact your cholesterol levels, how often you should test your cholesterol, how to regulate your cholesterol and more.
What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that the body uses to build cells and produce vitamins and hormones.
Cholesterol is therefore a necessity—but unhealthy levels of it can cause plaque (fatty deposits) to build up in your arteries, which can lead to problems like heart disease, stroke, and other health issues.
Your liver makes all the cholesterol your body needs, but it can also enter the body through foods from animals, such as meat and dairy products.
Foods that are high in saturated and trans fats can stimulate the liver to make more cholesterol than it would by nature, and this excess production can lead to unhealthily-high levels of cholesterol.
There are two types of cholesterol, HDL and LDL, which will be explained further below.
High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is often referred to as the “good” cholesterol. HDL helps remove cholesterol buildup from the arteries by returning it to the liver, where it can be removed from the body.
Low-density lipoprotein (LDL), on the other hand, is often referred to as the “bad” cholesterol.
LDL is the main source of cholesterol buildup in the arteries.
The key to having healthy cholesterol levels is having the right balance of HDL and LDL cholesterol.
If you have too much LDL cholesterol and/or not enough HDL cholesterol, you are more at risk for having cholesterol buildup in the arteries that lead to the heart and brain.
This cholesterol buildup can combine with other substances to form plaque in the arteries, leading them to become narrow and less flexible (a condition called atherosclerosis).
This increases one’s susceptibility to blood clots, which can cause a heart attack or stroke.
Recommended Cholesterol Levels by Age
When you get your cholesterol tested, you must get a lipid profile (also known as a lipid panel)—a blood test that measures your levels of LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, total cholesterol, and triglycerides.
Your total cholesterol is a measure of the total amount of cholesterol in your blood (HDL and LDL).
While not a form of cholesterol, triglycerides are the most common type of fat in the body, and people with high levels of triglycerides often have high total cholesterol levels.
Cholesterol and triglyceride numbers are measured in milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL).
According to the National Library of Medicine, healthy cholesterol levels for children and adolescents ages 19 and under are as follows:
|Type of Cholesterol||Healthy Level|
|Total Cholesterol||Less than 170mg/dL|
|HDL||More than 45mg/dL|
|LDL||Less than 100mg/dL|
According to the National Library of Medicine, healthy cholesterol levels for adults ages 20 and older are as follows:
|Type of Cholesterol||Healthy Level|
|Total Cholesterol||125 to 200mg/dL|
|HDL||50mg/dL or higher for women, 40mg/dL or higher for men|
|LDL||Less than 100mg/dL|
Normal triglyceride levels for both children and adults should be below 150 mg/dL, according to the National Library of Medicine.
What Can Affect Cholesterol Levels
There are a variety of things that can affect your cholesterol levels—some within your control, and some outside of it.
Factors within your control include:
- Diet: Eating a diet of foods high in saturated and trans fats can increase your levels of LDL cholesterol, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). You should avoid having 10% or more of your total daily calories come from saturated fats, and avoid trans fats as much as possible.
- Weight: Being overweight or obese tends to increase your cholesterol, and is a risk factor for heart disease, according to the National Library of Medicine. While there are some things that may be out of your control that can affect weight including certain conditions and side effects of some medications, if you’re interested in maintaining a healthy weight, you can bring up the topic with your health care provider.
- Smoking: Smoking cigarettes can both increase levels of LDL cholesterol and decrease levels of HDL cholesterol.
- Physical activity: A lack of physical activity is associated with lower levels of HDL cholesterol.
Factors outside your control include:
- Age: Though high cholesterol can affect people of any age, it is most commonly diagnosed in those between the ages of 40 and 59, according to the NHLBI. This is because as you age your metabolism changes, and your liver is no longer able to remove LDL cholesterol as well as it used to.
- Sex: Men are more likely to have high cholesterol than women when they are between the ages of 20 and 39, but women are more likely to have high cholesterol at all other ages, according to the NHLBI. Womens’ risk of high cholesterol can also increase due to birth control pills, menopause, and pregnancy.
- Race/ethnicity: Your race and ethnicity can impact your risk of having high cholesterol. For example, non-Hispanic white people are more likely than other groups to have high total cholesterol, while studies say that Black people are more likely than other groups to have high levels of HDL cholesterol, according to the NHLBI.
- Family history/genetics: The amount of cholesterol your body produces is genetic, and high cholesterol can run in families.
Some medications (for example, steroids and beta-blockers) and other medical conditions (for example, diabetes and sleep apnea) can also raise your LDL cholesterol levels or lower your HDL cholesterol levels.
How Often To Get Cholesterol Tested
In order to be on top of your cholesterol levels and keep them in check, you need to get regular lipid profiles.
The CDC recommends that healthy children and adolescents get tested at least once between ages 9 and 11, and then again between the ages of 17 and 21.
If you have a family history of high cholesterol, stroke, or heart attack, you may want to get your child tested earlier—as young as age two.
Most healthy adults, on the other hand, should get their cholesterol tested every 4-6 years, according to the CDC.
You may want to get checked more often if you deal with diabetes or heart disease, or have a family history of high cholesterol.
Treatment to Regulate Cholesterol
There are two main ways to regulate cholesterol: through lifestyle changes, and through cholesterol medication.
When it comes to lifestyle changes, the National Library of Medicine recommends the following methods of regulating your cholesterol:
- Eating right: Eating a balanced, heart-healthy diet that is low in saturated and trans fats and high in soluble fibers and protein can help reduce cholesterol build up.
- Managing your weight: If you are overweight or obese and have high cholesterol, managing your weight can help lower your LDL cholesterol and increase your HDL cholesterol.
- Staying active: Studies have shown that getting the recommended amount of physical activity can help lower your LDL cholesterol and triglycerides and increase your HDL cholesterol. Most people should aim for 30 minutes of activity a day, most days of the week.
- Quitting smoking: When you quit smoking, your HDL levels can increase, helping remove LDL cholesterol from your arteries.
- Minimizing stress: Research has shown that chronic stress can lower your LDL cholesterol and increase your HDL cholesterol.
If your doctor thinks you are at a high risk of heart attack or stroke, or that lifestyle changes alone are not enough to lower your high cholesterol, they may prescribe you medicine.
Statins are the most common medication used to treat high cholesterol and can help lower your risk of heart attack and stroke if you have high LDL cholesterol.
Other medications include bile acid sequestrants, PCSK9 inhibitors, ezetimibe, lomitapide, and mipomersen.
When to See a Doctor
High cholesterol usually has no signs or symptoms, so it’s important to see a doctor to get your cholesterol tested regularly.
If you know that you have a family history of high cholesterol, diabetes, or heart disease, you may want to check in with your doctor more often in order to keep everything in check and avoid having more serious issues arise.
How K Health Can Help
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Getting Your Cholesterol Checked. (n.d.)
Cholesterol Levels: What You Need to Know. (n.d.)
What Your Cholesterol Levels Mean. (n.d.)
Blood Cholesterol. (n.d.)
Lipid Panel. (n.d.)
Statins: Are these cholesterol-lowering drugs right for you? (2021).