The numbers on your blood test are important to predict your future heart health. If they fall within the normal range, your doctor will recommend another screening in a year or more. If your numbers are up, your doctor may recommend some lifestyle changes or even medication. What do those numbers really mean?
- Desirable, less than 200 mg/dl
- Borderline high 200 to 239 mg/dl
- High 240 mg/dl or higher
Total cholesterol is just that, the amount of cholesterol in a given volume of blood. The number of milligrams (mg) of cholesterol in 1 deciliter (dl) , which is slightly less than a half cup, is the way cholesterol is measured. Ideally, you want your level to be below 200 to reduce your risk for heart disease. For every 1% decrease in total cholesterol, your risk for heart disease drops 3% to 4%.
Cholesterol, a fat-like substance, is coated with a protein so it can travel in your blood, which is mainly water. The combination is called a lipoprotein. If your total cholesterol values are high, your doctor will want to know the amount of LDL (low density lipoprotein) and HDL (high density lipoprotein) cholesterol as well.
LDL Cholesterol is the main cholesterol carrier in your bloodstream. Too much LDL cholesterol in the blood can result in the formation of plaque which may clog arteries. A clogged artery leading to the heart can cause a heart attack. A clogged artery leading to the brain can cause a stroke. The lower your levels of LDL are the lower your risk for heart disease.
LDL Cholesterol – lower the better:
- Normal, less than 100 mg/dl
- Near or slightly above optimal 100 to 129 mg/dl
- Borderline high 130 to 159 mg/dl
- High 160 to 189 mg/dl
- Very high 190 mg/dl and above
About one-third of your blood cholesterol is carried by HDL cholesterol. Experts believe HDL cholesterol carries cholesterol away from arteries back to the liver where it is broken down and removed from your body. The higher your HDL level the lower your risk for heart disease.
HDL Cholesterol – higher the better:
- High, 60 mg/dl or higher
- Average for women, 50 to 60 mg/dl; average for men, 40 to 50 mg/dl
- Low, less than 40 mg/dl
In addition to cholesterol, triglycerides values are usually measured. Triglycerides are the main type of fat found in food, and the major storage form of fat in our body. After digestion, triglycerides are transported through the bloodstream to cells where they are burned for energy or to fat tissues where they are stored for future use. High levels, over 150 mg/dl, can be a risk factor for heart disease. Your risk for high triglycerides goes up if you are overweight, do little exercise, drink too much alcohol, eat a high carbohydrate diet, especially refined carbs, smoke, or have diabetes.
If your family history and your blood lipid values put you at moderate to high risk for heart disease your doctor may evaluate two other blood values, homocysteine and C-reactive protein.
Elevated levels of the amino acid homocysteine increase your risk for heart attack and stroke. Homecysteine levels can be reduced by getting adequate levels of folic acid (a B vitamin), B6, and B12. In addition to supplemental folic acid, fruits and vegetables, especially green leafy vegetables, are rich sources of folic acid. So are bread, cereal and pasta that have been enriched with the vitamin.
Homoecysteine — lower levels are healthier.
- Levels below 7 are associated with the lowest risk.
- Levels between 6 and 12 are normal.
- Moderate risk occurs at levels between 12 and 30
- High risk is over 30.
Elevated levels of C-reactive protein (CRP) triple your risk for heart disease and have been connected to the development of high blood pressure. For postmenopausal women CRP levels may be more accurate than cholesterol in predicting coronary problems. CRP is a marker for inflammation in the body. Research has suggested that as heart disease damages arteries, the damage causes inflammation and this inflammation increases the production of CRP by the body. Almost all healthy lifestyle changes are helpful in lowering inflammation and CRP levels – weight loss (overweight elevates CRP levels), exercise, smoking cessation, blood pressure control, and reduced alcohol intake. Taking a daily antioxidant vitamin may also be helpful.
C-reactive protein (CRP)
- C-reactive protein levels below 1 indicate a low risk for heart disease.
- Levels between 1 and 3 indicate an average risk.
- Levels higher than 3 suggest a high risk.
Knowing your numbers and working to get them to a healthy level is an important step in protecting your health and lowering your risk for heart disease. Discuss your numbers and your potential risk with your doctor to be sure you are doing all you can to manage your health.
For more information on lowering your cholesterol and controlling blood lipids take a look at two of our books, The Cholesterol Counter, 7th Ed. and The Fat Counter, 7th Ed.