What do the numbers mean? This is usually the first question asked by many patients to their health care provider when discussing their cholesterol levels, also called a lipid profile. The lipid profile is a test that is often ordered to determine a person’s risk of coronary heart disease, which can include a heart attack or stroke caused by blockage of blood vessels. The lipid profile comprises total cholesterol, HDL-cholesterol, LDL-cholesterol and triglycerides.

Knowing one’s cholesterol levels can help guide a person’s health care provider in determining risks factors and to also develop a treatment plan.

Having cholesterol is certainly a good thing, but having too much is bad.

Furthermore, having undesirable levels of cholesterol can lead to arteriosclerosis, a hardening of the arteries.

Cholesterol, which is made in the liver, is a waxy, fat-like substance found in all parts of the body. The body uses cholesterol to make hormones, vitamin D and other substances. The good news is the body makes all the cholesterol it needs.

The bad news is consuming a diet high in saturated fats and not exercising regularly increases the risk of developing heart disease.

Other risk factors include age (45 and older for men; 55 and younger for women), family history, smoking, high blood pressure, being overweight and having diabetes.

Understanding a lipid profile requires knowing the meaning of its components:

• Total cholesterol is the measurement of all cholesterol in the blood stream at any given time. A desirable level of total cholesterol is less than 200 mg/dl.

• HDL-cholesterol is often referred to as “good cholesterol” because it actually removes the cholesterol from blood vessel walls. HDL is at a desirable level when it is 40 mg/dl or higher.

• LDL-cholesterol is often referred to as “bad cholesterol” because it causes the build up of plaque inside blood vessels. It is at a desirable level when it is less than 130 mg/dl or lower than 100 mg/dl in higher risk patients.

• Triglycerides are the most common type of fat and are also a major energy source. A desirable level of triglycerides is 150 mg/dl or lower.

More than 105 million American adults have total blood cholesterol values of 200 mg/dl and higher and 36.6 million American adults have levels of 240 or above (www.americanheart.org).

The good news is a healthy diet low in saturated fats and increased physical activity can help lower risks of developing heart disease. Additionally, all adults age 20 and older should have their cholesterol levels checked at least once every 5 years.

For further information about cholesterol, risk factors, and treatment options, make an appointment with your health care provider.