This Chart Shows Healthy Cholesterol Levels by Age

You can lower your risk of heart disease, stroke, and heart attacks by controlling cholesterol. Use this chart to find out the healthy and unhealthy cholesterol levels by age.

You and your cholesterol level

Many people think all cholesterol is inherently bad for health, which makes sense based on warnings from health authorities.

It’s why doctors field so many questions like “Is my cholesterol too high?” and “Can you give me a healthy cholesterol level by age chart?”

But not all cholesterol is bad. In truth, it’s an important substance that helps build new cells.

Cholesterol is also the precursor to, or a molecule that is later converted into, vitamin D, steroid hormones, and bile salts. Bile salts are compounds the gallbladder releases into the small intestine during digestion that help break down and absorb dietary fats.

So why does cholesterol have such a bad reputation? As the level of cholesterol circulating in someone’s blood increases, so does their risk of heart disease and heart events like a heart attack or stroke.

That’s why it is so important to monitor your cholesterol levels and work to keep them in a healthy range. Of course, to do that, you need to know how to monitor your levels and what good, borderline, and bad cholesterol levels mean.

Keep reading for the lowdown on cholesterol levels, including handy cholesterol level by age charts that’ll help you navigate the ideal targets for you.

What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a fat-like compound with a waxy consistency.

The liver produces enough cholesterol to meet all of the body’s needs. The rest of cholesterol in the body comes from foods we eat, primarily animals products (which are high in saturated fat) and processed foods (which are loaded with both saturated and trans fats).

Because cholesterol isn’t water soluble (and blood is mostly water), it can’t travel solo in the blood. So it joins up with proteins, which transport it throughout the body and to the cells.

These particles are called lipoproteins (for the combo of fats, or lipids, and protein). There are two main types: high-density lipoproteins (HDL) and low-density lipoproteins (LDL).

How does cholesterol cause health problems?

When too much LDL (“bad”) cholesterol is in the bloodstream, it can stick to the inner walls of the blood vessels, particularly those that supply the brain and heart. Cholesterol can also bond with other molecules in the bloodstream before depositing on the inside of blood vessel walls.

Over time, these fatty deposits (called plaque) can narrow blood vessels and make them less flexible. As a result, it takes more force to push blood through them, which can raise blood pressure. When blood vessels narrow and become hard from plaque buildup, the condition is called atherosclerosis.

The condition is behind issues like coronary heart disease, carotid artery disease, and peripheral vascular disease. But narrowing arteries isn’t the only way cholesterol—and the plaque buildup it can cause—is detrimental to your health.

Chunks of plaque can also loosen and become stuck in, or even block, smaller blood vessels. This can reduce or prevent blood flow. As you can probably imagine, that’s not a good thing.

If tissues are starved of oxygen-rich blood, they can become damaged or destroyed. Plaque that clogs the arteries of the heart or brain can lead to a heart attack or stroke. And a pulmonary embolism, which can be fatal, can develop if pieces of plaque block tiny blood vessels in the lungs.

What raises the risk of unhealthy cholesterol levels?

Many different factors can influence someone’s cholesterol level or certain components of it. Some of the most common risk factors for unhealthy cholesterol levels include:

pediatrician talking to mother of patientSDI Productions/Getty Images

Can children have high cholesterol?

Unfortunately, children can have high or unhealthy cholesterol levels. In fact, in the United States, an estimated 50 percent of children and adolescents ages 6 to 19 have cholesterol levels that are not ideal, while 25 percent are in the high range clinically.

“Genetic factors and obesity may cause unhealthy cholesterol levels in children,” says Dr. Fleg.

A rare genetic condition called familial hypercholesterolemia is the most common inherited cardiovascular condition. It leads to very high cholesterol levels beginning at a young age.

When to get your cholesterol levels checked

Unhealthy cholesterol levels can be impossible to detect without the use of blood tests because they do not normally cause any obvious symptoms. That’s why heart experts call high cholesterol a silent killer.

It’s a common problem. In 2015–2016, roughly 12 percent of American adults ages 20 and older had high total cholesterol levels, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And more than 18 percent had low HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels.

Of the U.S. adults who could improve their cholesterol levels by taking cholesterol-lowering medications, only a little over half are doing so. Getting proper treatment for your high cholesterol is one of the reasons it is so important to routinely check your levels.

How often you need a cholesterol test depends on your age and risk of developing unhealthy cholesterol levels.

Cholesterol testing in children

“The American Heart Association [AHA] recommends all children have their cholesterol first tested between ages 9 and 11 years old. Children with a family history of high cholesterol, diabetes, or obesity should get their cholesterol first tested between ages 2 and 8 years old,” says Roxana Ehsani, a registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Kids with a strong family history or very high risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and chronic kidney disease should also have their cholesterol levels checked as early as 2 years of age, says Jerome L. Fleg, MD, medical officer in the division of cardiovascular sciences at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

After that, children are generally tested again between ages 17 and 21, according to the CDC.

Cholesterol testing in adults

Most adults need to have their cholesterol checked every five years, says Dr. Fleg. Certain people may need more-frequent cholesterol tests, such as anyone who:

  • has a condition that raise the risk of unhealthy cholesterol levels
  • has cardiovascular disease
  • is currently trying to improve their cholesterol levels
  • has a family history of high cholesterol

Cholesterol levels change with age. The older you get, the more likely you are to have high cholesterol.

The AHA says that after the age of 40, a doctor should calculate your 10-year-risk of experiencing a stroke or heart attack. People who are more likely to have a heart event or who have cardiovascular diseases may need to have their cholesterol checked more frequently.

How to get your cholesterol levels checked

You can buy a test kit that will allow you to check your cholesterol levels at home, but they vary in how accurate they are. Kits that are approved by the FDA and say they’re traceable to a CDC program may be more accurate.

Given the lack of quality control on home health measurements like at-home testing kits, Dr. Fleg says, blood lipids should be measured by an accredited medical laboratory.

The AHA agrees, recommending that a primary care or family doctor assess blood lipid test results.

Getting an accurate cholesterol number is just one aspect of your overall cardiovascular health. You also have to understand what the number means for you personally.

Informed about your health history, family health history, and other risk factors, your doctor will be able to interpret the results better than a test kit. And by keeping track of all your cholesterol readings, your doctor will be able to catch any changes and advise you the best ways to address them.

Preparing for your cholesterol test

Your doctor or nurse will tell you if there is anything special you need to do in the days before your blood is drawn for the test. How you’ll prepare depends on the types of cholesterol test your doctor ordered.

Non-fasting blood lipid tests analyze only total cholesterol and HDL cholesterol. If you’re getting this type of test, you can eat, drink, and take medication as usual.

Fasting lipid panels give you the whole picture when it comes to your cholesterol levels. For this test, you’ll need to fast—avoid food and drink, except plain water—and go off medications for nine to 12 hours before the test.

What is included in a cholesterol test?

A doctor will order a basic blood lipid or blood lipoprotein test to check your cholesterol levels.

The test determines the milligrams of cholesterol per deciliter of blood (mg/dl). A blood lipid panel will normally assess someone’s levels of several types of cholesterol, including the following.

Total Cholesterol

Total blood (serum) cholesterol measures the concentration of all types of cholesterol in the blood. It is calculated by adding your LDL and HDL levels, plus 20 percent of your triglyceride level.

According to the AHA, having “normal” total cholesterol levels is not as important as your overall risk of developing cardiovascular disease or heart events.

HDL cholesterol

Often referred to as good cholesterol, high-density lipoproteins are molecules that are not fully saturated with hydrogen molecules. Because they are not saturated, HDL cholesterol can pick up freely circulating LDL cholesterol and carry it to the liver, which removes it from the body.

It’s a good thing that HDL mops up excess LDL, but it generally doesn’t clean up all the bad cholesterol. Only one-third to one-fourth of cholesterol is carried to the liver by HDL, according to the AHA.

Experts say many people have HDL levels that are too low. And while women often have naturally higher levels of HDL than men, this can change after menopause, when estrogen levels drop.

Men may show a modest increase in their HDL cholesterol levels through middle age, says Dr. Fleg.

LDL cholesterol

Normally considered bad cholesterol, LDL builds up in the blood and can lead to plaque deposits and atherosclerosis. This, in turn, can result in heart disease and other dangerous health conditions.

When doctors talk about lowering your cholesterol, they’re referring, in part, to reducing LDL cholesterol.

Triglycerides

The most common fats found in the body are called triglycerides. Some are produced by the body; the rest come from the foods we eat. These fat molecules store extra energy from food.

People with high triglyceride levels tend to have low HDL levels as well, a one-two punch to your heart health.

Non-HDL cholesterol

Your lipid panel may go beyond the big four numbers (LDL, HDL, triglycerides, and total cholesterol), also including non-HDL cholesterol. You calculate it by subtracting HDL from total cholesterol level.

In other words, your non-HDL cholesterol level reflects all types of fat in your blood except for HDL. Zeroing in on only the bad fats, some experts believe, can help your doctor assess your heart disease risk.

VLDL cholesterol

In some cases, a lipid panel may look at your levels of very-low-density lipoprotein (VLDL). Like LDL cholesterol, VLDL cholesterol can contribute to the formation of plaque inside blood vessel walls and raise the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Healthy Cholesterol Levels By Age
Adults age 20 or olderPeople age 19 or younger
Total CholesterolLess than 200 mg/dlLess than 170 mg/dl
LDLLess than 100 mg/dlLess than 110 mg/dl
HDLMen: 40 mg/dl or higher
Women: 50 mg/dl or higher
Ideal: 60 mg/dl or higher
45 mg/dl or higher
TriglyceridesLess than 149 mg/dlAge 9 or younger: less than 75 mg/dl
Ages 10-19: less than 90 mg/dl
Non-HDLLess than 130 mg/dlLess than 45 mg/dl

Print This Chart

Cholesterol levels by age charts

Healthy cholesterol targets vary based on age, not only between adults and children but also between younger children and adolescents.

The numbers below are good, borderline, and high cholesterol levels for adults and children, according to Dr. Fleg, AHA guidelines, and the National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine.

Total cholesterol levels by age chart

Adults age 20 or olderPeople age 19 or younger
GoodLess than 200 mg/dlLess than 170 mg/dl
Borderline200 to 239 mg/dl170 to 199 mg/dl
High240 mg/dl or higher200 mg/dl or higher

LDL cholesterol levels by age chart

Adults age 20 or olderPeople age 19 or younger
GoodLess than 100 mg/dlLess than 110 mg/dl
Borderline130 to 159 mg/dl110 to 129 mg/dl
High160 mg/dl or higher130 mg/dl or higher

HDL cholesterol levels by age chart

Adults age 20 or olderPeople age 19 or younger
GoodMen: 40 mg/dl or higher
Women: 50 mg/dl or higher
Ideal: 60 mg/dl or higher
45 mg/dl or higher
Borderline                  n/a40 to 45 mg/dl
LowLess than 40 mg/dlLess than 40 mg/dl

Triglyceride levels by age chart

Adults age 20 or olderPeople ages 10-19Children ages 9 and younger
GoodLess than 149 mg/dlLess than 90 mg/dlLess than 75 mg/dl
Borderline150 to 199 mg/dl90 to 129 mg/dl75 to 129 mg/dl
High200 mg/dl or higher130 mg/dl or higher100 mg/dl or higher

Non-HDL cholesterol levels by age chart

Adults age 20 or olderPeople age 19 or younger
GoodLess than 130 mg/dlLess than 45 mg/dl
Borderline              n/a120 to 144 mg/dl
High              n/a145 mg/dl or higher

When it comes to VLDL cholesterol in adults, a healthy level is less than 30 mg/dl.

How to improve unhealthy cholesterol levels

High cholesterol may be dangerous, but the good news is that there are steps you can take to lower your cholesterol levels. One major way to do that is by engaging in a heart-healthy lifestyle.

“While it helps to follow a healthy lifestyle from an early age, you’re never too old to change your lifestyle for the better and help protect your heart health,” says Jen Bruning, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

One of the best ways to improve your cholesterol is to follow a diet that limits foods high in saturated fat and eliminates trans fats. Other tips for changing unhealthy cholesterol levels include:

Sources

Jennifer Huizen
Jennifer is a freelance writer and editor who has worked with many online sites, including Medical News Today, Healthline, Scientific American, Audubon, Love Nature, Yale Medical Magazine, and Mongabay. She covers all things science, but her passion projects usually relate to the environment, animals, and mental health. Jennifer holds a BS Hons Biology, a BA Hons English, and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. Originally from Nova Scotia, Canada, Jennifer now lives in the U.S. with her absurdly-unique rescue cat Jim Carrey and a jungle's worth of houseplants.