Normal Cholesterol Levels by Age

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that plays many roles in the body, including synthesizing hormones and vitamin D. It also assists in the transporting of lipids. Cholesterol is found in the foods you eat, but it is also made by the liver.

We need some cholesterol to build healthy cells, but an accumulation of the bad kind can be problematic, increasing the risk of atherosclerosis. The recommended ranges for your cholesterol will depend on your age. Find out what cholesterol levels are, why age is a factor, and how to keep your levels within a healthy range.

Healthy heart lifestyle

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What Are Cholesterol Levels?

Cholesterol circulating in the blood is carried by special particles called lipoproteins. The two major cholesterol-carrying lipoproteins are low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL):

  • LDL cholesterol (LDL-C) is often referred to as "bad" cholesterol because too much of it can build up in your arteries and form plaques, which increases the risk of heart disease (atherosclerosis).
  • HDL cholesterol (HDL-C) is often referred to as "good" cholesterol as it carries cholesterol to the liver to be broken down and excreted.

Since your total cholesterol is a combination of your LDL cholesterol and your HDL cholesterol, ideally you want to keep your LDL levels low and your HDL levels high. There are many factors that can influence your cholesterol, including, diet, exercise, weight, genetics, and other health conditions.

Why Age Is a Factor

The recommended ranges for your cholesterol will vary based on age and gender. As people get older, cholesterol levels rise naturally. For example, people who have gone through menopause may have higher LDL and lower HDL cholesterol levels.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children's cholesterol levels be checked between ages 9 and 11.

However, children with certain risk factors, such as those whose parents or grandparents have had heart attacks or been diagnosed with blocked arteries at age 55 or earlier in males or 65 or earlier in females, should be tested for cholesterol between ages 2 and 10.

Healthy Cholesterol Levels by Age

The following table was adapted from the Cleveland Clinic ("mg/dL" means "milligrams per deciliter):

Cholesterol Levels by Age: Normal, Borderline, and High
 Age/Sex Classification Total Cholesterol LDL HDL
Males 19 and younger Normal Less than 170 mg/dL Less than 110 mg/dL  More than 45 mg/dL (optimal)
Borderline 170–199 mg/dL 110–129 mg/dL
High Greater than or equal to 200 mg/dL Greater than or equal to 130 mg/dL
Males 20 and older Normal 125–200 mg/dL Less than 100 mg/dL More than 40 mg/dL (optimal)
Borderline 200–239 mg/dL 130-159 mg/dL
High Greater than or equal to 239 mg/dL 160–189 mg/dL
Females 19 and younger   Normal Less than 170 mg/dL Less than 110 mg/dL More than 45 mg/dL (optimal)
Borderline 170–199 mg/dL 110–129 mg/dL
High Greater than or equal to 200 mg/dL Greater than or equal to 130 mg/dL
Females 20 and older   Normal 125–200 mg/dL Less than 100 mg/dL  More than 50 mg/dL (optimal)
Borderline 200–239 mg/dL 130–159 mg/dL
High Greater than or equal to 239 mg/dL 160–189 mg/dL

How Often to Get Tested

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most healthy adults should get their cholesterol checked every four to six years.

Your risk factors also determine how often your cholesterol should be checked. Adults who have a history of high cholesterol, heart disease, diabetes, or obesity need more frequent readings, as do all adults as they age.

Children should have their cholesterol checked at least once between the ages of 9 and 11 and again between 17 and 20 years of age. If a child has a family history of high cholesterol, heart disease, or is overweight or obese, their pediatrician may recommend getting checked sooner and more often.

What Affects Cholesterol Levels?

There are a variety of factors that can affect cholesterol levels. Some risk factors are within your control, while others are not:

  • Genetics: These factors include familial hypercholesterolemia and a family history of heart disease.
  • Sex: Males often have higher levels of LDL. After menopause, a woman's LDL levels can also increase.
  • Weight: People who are overweight or obese are at increased risk of having high cholesterol.
  • Sedentary lifestyle: Lack of physical activity can increase the risk of overweight and obesity and, in turn, increase cholesterol levels.
  • Diet: Overall diet quality can affect cholesterol in a negative way, including eating too many saturated and trans fats and not enough fiber.
  • Age: Your body's ability to clear cholesterol can be impacted as you age.
  • Race and ethnicity: There are different rates of high cholesterol based on race/ethnicity and sex, with the highest rates among males in Hispanics and the highest rates among females in non-Hispanic Whites.
  • Smoking: Smoking can increase your bad cholesterol and lower your good cholesterol.
  • Other medical conditions: Having a previous history of high cholesterol, heart disease, or diabetes can increase your risk of developing high cholesterol.

How to Lower Cholesterol

Children and adults benefit from getting regular exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, and eating a well-balanced diet that is rich in fiber. A sedentary lifestyle has been associated with high cholesterol.

Lifestyle Changes

Eating a well-balanced, heart-healthy diet: Studies have shown that a diet rich in plants, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and legumes, can reduce the risk of heart disease, and stroke, and death.

Fruits and vegetables are rich in fiber, the indigestible kind of carbohydrate. Fiber acts like a sponge, binding to cholesterol, helping the body to excrete it.

Children and adults will differ in the recommended number of fruits and vegetables that should be consumed daily. But, generally, kids ages 9 and older should aim to eat around 1.5 to 2 cups of fruit and 2.5 to 3 cups of vegetables daily.

This can be overwhelming for some kids and parents alike, especially if your child is more selective in their food choices. The good news is that it is never too late to start eating well. Making small changes can yield a big impact. Begin by adding one serving of fruits or vegetables daily to children's meals.

Reducing the intake of saturated fats and trans fat: Saturated fat and trans fat are solid fats that can increase cholesterol and contribute to the buildup of plaques in the arteries when eaten in excess amounts. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that adults reduce saturated fat to less than 6% of total calorie intake.

For example, if you eat a 2,000-calorie diet, you should limit your intake of saturated fat to about 13 grams daily. One tablespoon of butter contains about 7 grams of saturated fat, more than half of the recommended daily allowance.

Foods rich in saturated and trans-fat include high-fat meats, cured meats like bacon and sausage, skins of meat, fried foods, full-fat dairy, butter, cream, baked goods, and fast food. This doesn't mean that you can never eat these foods again. Rather, reducing your intake can make a big impact on your cholesterol levels.

Children do not need to count grams of saturated fat. Simply reducing intake of fast food and making small changes can positively affect their cholesterol levels.

For example, purchasing low-fat milk, reducing red meat to twice per week, and including more lean protein such as white meat (chicken, turkey, and fish) can help to reduce saturated and trans-fat intake.

Add healthy fats: Healthy fats, such as omega-3 fatty acids (found in seeds like flax and chia) and fatty fish like salmon, may improve cholesterol by increasing your HDL. Consider having fish twice per week and adding ground flax, nuts, or seeds to oats, pancakes, or smoothies for fiber and healthy fat.

Use lower-fat cooking methods: Lower-fat cooking methods may also help to reduce cholesterol. You can make swaps such as using olive oil or avocado oil instead of butter. Aim to bake, broil, steam, poach, or grill more often and reduce the amount of frying. Get your children involved in the cooking process, too.

Move more and make it enjoyable: Physical activity is beneficial for overall health, including heart health. Being physically active is associated with healthier weight and improvement in cholesterol levels. School-aged children should get at least 60 minutes of physical activity daily.

Preschoolers are encouraged to move throughout the day, while adults should aim for a minimum of moderate-to-intense aerobic activity 150 minutes per week and muscle training twice weekly. This might seem overwhelming, but you can still reap the benefits of physical activity by exercising in 10-minute intervals.

The best way to start an exercise regimen is to find something you enjoy doing. When you can, make it a family affair by going for a bike ride, a walk, or participating in a family-friendly game of basketball, kickball, or tag.

However, if you have an existing health condition and are not exercising regularly, you should consult your physician before starting an exercise program.

Quit smoking: Smoking impacts your cholesterol by raising LDL and lowering HDL. The AHA recommends quitting smoking and avoiding secondhand smoke to improve cholesterol.

Losing weight: Carrying too much weight in the abdomen can increase the risk of heart disease and is associated with increased LDL. Excess weight has also been associated with low HDL. Modest weight loss of about 5%–10% of body weight has been shown to improve lipids.

For children within a normal weight range, weight loss is usually unnecessary. In fact, depending on the age and whether there are any health conditions, most children benefit from maintaining their weight while they continue to grow.

Getting Help for Your Child

If you are worried about your child's weight, consider consulting with a registered dietitian or expressing your concerns with your pediatrician.

Children can benefit from getting involved in meal planning, shopping, and cooking, reducing intake of sweetened beverages, and learning how to eat more fruits and vegetables. Being a good role model and getting the entire family on board is also important for making changes and providing your child with confidence.

Medications

If lifestyle changes alone don't help to reduce your cholesterol, you may need medications. The decision to start medication will also depend on your medical history, age, weight, and if you have any other risk factors for heart disease, including high blood pressure and diabetes.

There are many different types of medication for cholesterol. Your physician will help you find the right fit.

Medication may be indicated in children is if your child has inherited a genetic disorder called familial hypercholesterolemia. The Food and Drug Administration has approved certain statins starting at age 8, but discussions with your physicians are warranted.

Summary

Cholesterol levels tend to rise with age, so the recommended ranges for your cholesterol will depend on your age. Many factors affect your cholesterol levels in addition to age, including those over which you have control. If lifestyle changes cannot keep your cholesterol levels at a healthy level, your healthcare professional may recommend medication.

A Word From Verywell

Keeping your cholesterol levels in normal range is important in the prevention of heart disease. If you've recently had a cholesterol screening and your levels are high there are many lifestyle changes you can make to get them in a healthier range. Make sure you write down any questions you have and follow up with your doctor with your concerns.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are healthy cholesterol levels by age?

Healthy cholesterol levels change with age because as we get older, cholesterol levels rise naturally. Keeping your cholesterol at a healthy level from a young age can reduce the risk of heart disease later in life.

What is the normal range for cholesterol levels?

For most healthy adults (19 and older), your total cholesterol should be less than 200 mg/dL, your LDL less than 100 mg/dL, and your HDL greater than 40 mg/dL. For children (19 and younger), total cholesterol should be less than 170 mg/dL, LDL less than 110 mg/dL, and HDL greater than 45 mg/dL.

What reduces cholesterol quickly?

There is no quick fix for reducing cholesterol. But there are plenty of ways to reduce your cholesterol naturally. Eating a high fiber diet, reducing saturated fat, weight loss (if indicated), exercise, and smoking cessation are just some of the things within your control. If lifestyle interventions are unsuccessful, medication is always an option.

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