Cholesterolemia is the presence of cholesterol in your blood. Your body needs cholesterol to form cell membranes and hormones as well as help the body process certain vitamins and fats.

Your body relies on the right balance of cholesterol to perform its daily functions. If you have too much cholesterol, doctors call that hypercholesterolemia. Too little cholesterol is hypocholesterolemia.

This article will discuss what doctors consider a healthy blood cholesterol level and how to keep your levels in check.

Two lipoproteins are responsible for carrying cholesterol to and from your cells: high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL).

When a doctor measures your cholesterol levels, they’ll measure your HDL and LDL because they’re what’s transporting the cholesterol in your body.

LDL cholesterol (“bad cholesterol”) can lead to unwanted effects if there’s too much. When cholesterol builds up in your arteries, it narrows them. This is a condition known as atherosclerosis.

When your arteries narrow, your blood pressure can increase. The deposits can also break off and potentially cause a heart attack or stroke. For these reasons, it’s a good idea to keep your LDL cholesterol in the expected range.

HDL cholesterol (“good” cholesterol) carries LDL cholesterol away from your arteries and to your liver for disposal. HDL transports about one-third to one-fourth of the cholesterol in your body.

Your body needs a certain amount of cholesterol, so it’s not realistic to aim for a cholesterol level of zero. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the optimal levels are as follows:

TypeOptimal level (in mg/dL)
LDL cholesterolAbout 100
HDL cholesterolFor men, greater than or equal to 40
For women, greater than or equal to 50
Total cholesterolAbout 150

Your doctor will consider not only your cholesterol lab results but also your:

  • overall health
  • weight
  • age
  • smoking status

If you have a family history of high cholesterol, you may also require earlier treatment, depending on your results.

Most adults should get their cholesterol checked every 4 to 6 years. However, if you have a family history of high cholesterol or other risk factors, talk with your doctor about whether you should test your cholesterol more frequently.

Hypercholesterolemia vs. hypocholesterolemia

Hypercholesterolemia is an excess of cholesterol. It’s a significant predictor of atherosclerosis, or fatty buildup in your arteries.

Hypocholesterolemia means lower-than-typical LDL cholesterol levels, usually less than 50 mg/dL. Because your body naturally makes cholesterol, this usually occurs when you take statins, medications that lower your cholesterol.

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Excessive amounts of cholesterol can be toxic to your cells. Too much cholesterol can lead to early cell death and fatty deposits in your body. These deposits can break off, causing a stroke or heart attack.

Although high or unhealthy cholesterol levels have unwanted effects, they don’t usually cause symptoms until you experience a significant medical event. Examples include a heart attack or stroke.

In some cases, you may see growths on your skin from high cholesterol. These can appear as waxy bumps called xanthomas. They can also appear on your eyelids (xanthelasmas).

It’s much less clear how low cholesterol may affect you. Some studies have linked low cholesterol levels with depression, but other studies don’t support the link.

A healthcare professional can order a simple blood test to measure your cholesterol levels. You’ll usually need to fast (not eat or drink anything) for about 8 to 12 hours to get the most accurate result.

You will typically get results for your HDL, LDL, and triglycerides. Those are fats that circulate through your blood.

Your doctor should review your cholesterol levels with you to determine what they mean for your overall health. If your levels are not within the optimal range, your doctor may suggest interventions such as lifestyle changes or even medical management.

Doctors associate excess cholesterol levels (hypercholesterolemia) with increased risks for cardiovascular disease. It may even increase your risk for diseases that affect your brain, such as Alzheimer’s disease and major depressive disorder.

Medical treatment

If you have very high levels of cholesterol, your doctor may prescribe cholesterol-lowering medications. They may also prescribe them if you’re at risk for a cardiovascular event due to high cholesterol and another chronic medical condition such as diabetes.

Many types of medication can lower your cholesterol. These include:

Statins are some of the most commonly prescribed medications to lower cholesterol levels. They have the added benefit of slightly boosting HDL cholesterol levels.

But they can cause some unwanted side effects, including liver damage and muscle pain.

Lifestyle changes

Eating a healthy diet and engaging in regular exercise can often lower your cholesterol levels. A cholesterol-lowering diet requires eating “healthy” fat sources while minimizing unhealthy fat sources, such as trans fats and saturated fats.

The following are examples of lifestyle choices that can help lower your cholesterol level:

  • Switch high fat options for low fat options. Examples include low fat or skim milk and low fat cuts of meat.
  • Use healthy oils when you cook, such as vegetable oil.
  • Refrain from eating foods that are on a shelf, which often contain preservatives and trans fats.
  • Consume no more than 6% of your daily calories from saturated fats.
  • Engage in regular physical activity. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise each week.
  • Refrain from smoking and vaping.
  • If you wish to lose weight, do so in a gradual, safe fashion.

Talk with your doctor about steps you can take to reduce your cholesterol levels.

The right balance of cholesterol in your blood promotes healthy cell function. A high fat diet, smoking, and a lack of physical activity can lead to cholesterol levels that are higher than recommended.

To check your cholesterol levels, talk with your doctor about getting this simple blood test. Your doctor can help you interpret your results and create a plan to manage your cholesterol levels.