Good heart health is like a building block: it’s cumulative. The earlier you start making healthy lifestyle choices, the better off you’ll be as you get older. This is particularly true when it comes to high cholesterol.

Cholesterol is a fatty substance made by your body and also found in certain foods. Your body needs some cholesterol to function properly, but having too much (high cholesterol) puts you at risk for having a heart attack or stroke. Extra cholesterol that isn’t used by your body builds up in blood vessel walls, causing blockages, and raising your risk of having heart disease.

Your total cholesterol level is the overall amount of cholesterol found in your blood. It consists of low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high-density lipoproteins (HDL).

LDL is also called “bad” cholesterol because it blocks your blood vessels and increases your risk of heart disease. HDL is considered “good” cholesterol because it helps protect you from heart disease. The higher your HDL, the better.

Finally, total cholesterol includes a triglycerides count. Triglycerides are another type of fat that can build up in the body. High levels of triglycerides and low levels of HDL raise your risk for heart disease.

The American Heart Association recommends that all adults have their cholesterol levels checked every four to six years, starting at age 20, which is when cholesterol levels can start to go up. As we age, cholesterol levels tend to rise.

Men are generally at a higher risk than women. However, a woman’s risk goes up after she hits menopause. For those with high cholesterol and additional risk factors (elevated blood pressure, family history of premature heart disease, diabetes mellitus, cigarette smoking), more frequent testing is recommended.

Cholesterol chart for adults

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, these are the acceptable, borderline, and high cholesterol and triglyceride measurements for adults. All values are in milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL).

Total cholesterolHDL cholesterolLDL cholesterolTriglycerides
GoodLess than 20040 or higherLess than 100Less than 149
Borderline200–239n/a130–159150–199
High240 or highern/a160 or higher200 or higher
Lown/aless than 40n/an/a

Children who are physically active, have a healthy diet, aren’t overweight, and don’t have a family history of high cholesterol are at a lower risk for having high cholesterol.

Current guidelines recommend that all children have their cholesterol checked between ages 9 and 11 and then again between ages 17 and 21.

Kids with higher risk factors, like diabetes or a family history of high cholesterol, should be checked between ages 2 and 8 and again between ages 12 and 16.

Cholesterol chart for children

Following are the recommended cholesterol levels for children according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). All values are in milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL).

Total cholesterolHDL cholesterolLDL cholesterolTriglycerides
Good170 or less45 or higher110 or lessless than 75 in children 0–9; less than 90 in children 10–19
Borderline170–19940–45110–12975–99 in children 0–9; 90–129 in children 10–19
High200 or highern/agreater than 130100 or more in children 0–9; 130 or more in children 10–19
Lown/aless than 40n/an/a

The good news is that lifestyle changes are effective in helping you reduce cholesterol levels. They’re also fairly straightforward and can be done at any age.

It’s important to remember that everyone is different. Family history and whether or not you have other conditions, such as diabetes, play a role in your individual risks. Talk to your doctor about your cholesterol levels and ask what he or she thinks your numbers should be.

“The key is to have normal cholesterol levels throughout your lifetime. One misconception is that people can have poorly controlled cholesterol for years and then decide to take action. By then the plaque could already have built up,” says Dr. Eugenia Gianos, cardiologist at NYU Langone Medical Center.