How to read your cholesterol numbers

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Blood cholesterol results can be a little confusing if you don't know what all the numbers mean. Cholesterol is measured in millimoles per litre (mmol/l) or milligrams per decilitre of blood (mg/dl). There are certain guidelines for each of the three components of cholesterol: HDL (or "good" cholesterol), LDL ("bad" cholesterol) and triglycerides, a form of fat that's often acquired by obesity, lack of exercise or consuming a diet high in carbohydrates. A little education can help you understand your cholesterol numbers.

Determine your cholesterol numbers through a blood test. A total cholesterol level under 5.13 mmol/l (200 mg/dl) is good -- you'll be at low risk for coronary heart disease if you have no other risk factors such as smoking or obesity. If your cholesterol levels are between 5.13 and 6.13 mmol/l (200 mg/dl and 239 mg/dl), you're at the borderline stage for heart disease. Your doctor may place you on medication to lower cholesterol and will advise you when to check it again. If your cholesterol is 6.15 mmol/l (240 mg/dl) or above, you're in the high-risk category for heart disease and may be placed on cholesterol-lowering medication. You'll need to have your cholesterol checked regularly.

Seeing high levels for HDL cholesterol is beneficial, since it's the good cholesterol in your body. Levels should be higher than 1.02 mmol/l (40 mg/dl) for men and 1.28 mmol/l (50 mg/dl) for women. Low levels could place you at risk for heart disease and could be due to obesity, lack of exercise or eating a diet high in fat.

Lowering your risk of heart attack or stroke can be done by having normal levels of LDL or "bad cholesterol" level. Below 2.56 mmol/l (100 mg/dl) is ideal, 2.56 to 3.3 mmol/l (100 to 129 mg/dl) is near average, 3.33 to 4.07 mmol/l (130 to 159 mg/dl) is slightly high, 4.1 to 4.85 (160 to 189 mg/dl) is high, 4.87 mmol/l (190 mg/dl) and above is very high and you are at great risk for heart disease or stroke.

Tracking your triglyceride levels is also important. If you have a high triglyceride level, you usually have high LDL and HDL cholesterol levels. Average levels are below 1.69 mmol/l (150 mg/dl); a slightly high level runs between 1.69 and 2.24 mmol/l (150 mg/dl and 199 mg/dl); a high level would fall between 2.25 and 5.6 mmol/l (200 mg/dl and 499 mg/dl); and a very high level would be 5.62 mmol/l (500 mg/dl) or more.

Check your blood cholesterol levels every five years or as your doctor advises, based on your individual health and conditions.

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