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LDL Cholesterol Levels: Symptoms and Causes

LDL Cholesterol Levels: Symptoms and Causes

Written by Edibel Quintero, RD | Medically reviewed by Medically reviewed by Rosmy Barrios, MD check
Published on January 4, 2023
11 min

High low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Keeping your LDL levels within a normal range is crucial to enjoying long-term health. Find out more about the optimal LDL level and how to lower high cholesterol.

LDL Cholesterol Levels

Can you feel bad cholesterol levels? And what are healthy LDL levels you should aim for?

High cholesterol has a bad reputation, but some cholesterol types are worse than others. Your body needs cholesterol to function. The problem is when your LDL level climbs beyond the normal range.

If you’re dealing with too much LDL cholesterol, we have you covered. Read on to find out the key things you need to know about LDL levels and how to manage them.

What Is LDL Cholesterol?

LDL stands for low-density lipoprotein cholesterol. It’s a waxy substance that occurs in all cells of your body. More specifically, it’s a combination of fat or lipid and protein, and it represents most of the cholesterol in your body.

Lipoproteins are carrier proteins that transport cholesterol and triglycerides to where they’re needed in the body. Your body needs LDL alongside high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol to make cells and hormones.

But when LDL exceeds normal levels, it accumulates as plaque in the walls of arteries and blood vessels. This plaque impairs blood flow. 

Since it doesn’t dissolve in blood, it increases the risk of developing heart disease, suffering a heart attack, or stroke.

The plaque buildup is known as atherosclerosis. According to research, diseases associated with atherosclerosis are the leading cause of death in the United States.

As many as half of Americans aged 45–84 have the condition without knowing it, as high cholesterol doesn’t cause any symptoms.

No wonder then that LDL is called bad cholesterol. By contrast, HDL cholesterol absorbs surplus cholesterol in the blood and carries it to the liver to be flushed out, reducing plaque buildup and improving blood flow.

LDL comes from meat, dairy, and other foods high in saturated fat. It’s also produced in the liver. Without any LDL, your cells wouldn’t function properly.

The problem is that an unhealthy diet coupled with a sedentary lifestyle makes it easy to exceed normal cholesterol levels.

A family history of high cholesterol may also cause unhealthy cholesterol levels. The condition known as familial hypercholesterolemia occurs as a gene alteration inherited from one or both parents. It’s a major risk factor for heart disease at an early age.

However, relatively few people struggle with high cholesterol because of having a family history of this condition.

The overwhelming majority of people diagnosed with high cholesterol can manage their cholesterol levels through dietary and lifestyle changes.

How Often Should I Measure My Cholesterol Levels?

Regularly checking LDL and HDL cholesterol levels can help ward off health problems.

According to the latest guidelines, it’s best to check cholesterol levels starting at age 20. If the results are good, you can continue getting a complete lipid panel every 4–6 years up until age 40.

After 40, both males and females should check total cholesterol as well as LDL and HDL levels every year. If you have diabetes, high blood pressure, or a history of cardiovascular disease, your doctor may recommend cholesterol tests more often.

Track Your LDL Cholesterol Levels

Managing cholesterol requires tracking your blood cholesterol levels, including LDL and HDL cholesterol. Keeping track of blood test results for cholesterol doesn’t have to be a pain.

Cardi Health makes that easy. Developed by Kilo Health, a member of the American Heart Association Center for Health Technology and Innovation, the app helps you organize your important heart health information in one place.

It integrates with the Cardi Health BP Monitor, helping you measure and track blood pressure and heart rate and then easily share your health data.

With Cardi Health, you can see how your heart health metrics change over time, track medication and symptoms, and more.

Learn more about Cardi Health and how it can help you stay healthy.

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  • Personalized activity plan to suit the user
  • Personalized nutrition plan
  • Takes into account dietary requirements, preferences, and allergies
  • Action plans generated from the tracking tool
  • Real-time insights into your heart’s health performance
Our rating:
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LDL Cholesterol Levels

Do you have too much LDL in your bloodstream? Or do your levels fall within normal limits? A simple blood test that looks at low-density lipoprotein levels in mg/dL can tell you.

How much cholesterol should you have? Let’s take a closer look at healthy and unhealthy cholesterol levels.

LDL cholesterol levelsmg/dL
Normal ✅<100
Elevated ❌101–159
High ❌160<

Good to know: The latest cholesterol guidelines focus on lowering cholesterol by a certain percentage to reduce the risk of disease rather than reach a specific number. They help to account for individual variations in normal cholesterol levels.

Normal: <100mg/dL

Normal cholesterol levels in adults fall under 100mg/dL for both men and women. Some people have naturally lower cholesterol levels than others.


Normal cholesterol levels reduce your risk of heart disease and other cardiovascular issues.

Your body will use cholesterol to maintain cell structures, produce cortisol and other hormones, insulate nerve cells, make vitamin D, and produce bile, which plays a crucial role in digestion.


You may have naturally lower LDL than other people. That said, eating foods low in bad cholesterol, exercising, and leading a healthy lifestyle can sustain an optimal LDL level.

Elevated: 101–159mg/dL

LDL above 101mg/dL can be a cause for concern. It can be a sign of too much cholesterol accumulating in your arteries. If you have elevated cholesterol levels, your doctor may recommend more frequent tests.


Elevated cholesterol levels don’t usually cause any symptoms. The only way to find out is to get tested.


Elevated cholesterol levels increase your risk of high cholesterol and all the health risks that come with it. Left unmanaged, elevated cholesterol may continue to rise, which increases your risk for a heart attack or stroke.


Elevated LDL occurs when you have too many low-density lipoproteins compared to high-density lipoproteins in your blood.

Risk factors include eating high-cholesterol foods, not exercising, and being overweight. Certain diseases may also elevate cholesterol levels. We’ll talk about them in a bit.

High: 160mg/dL<

An LDL level beyond 160mg/dL is a cause for concern. It can lead to the buildup of plaque in blood vessels and may impair normal blood flow. By doing so, it can significantly increase the risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, and other cardiovascular diseases.


High blood cholesterol doesn’t cause noticeable symptoms. However, if the LDL results climb so high that they cause a heart attack or other cardiovascular diseases, you may experience symptoms associated with those conditions.

For example, high cholesterol may cause coronary artery disease (CAD). This condition, in turn, causes chest pain, nausea, shortness of breath, fatigue, and back, neck, jaw, or abdominal pain.


High LDL puts you at higher risk of heart disease, stroke, and other life-threatening cardiovascular diseases. These include:

  • Atherosclerosis – it impairs blood flow and can cause serious cardiovascular disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Peripheral artery disease
  • Angina (chest pain)
  • Heart attack
  • Stroke


Many causes can contribute to the accumulation of unhealthy levels of low-density lipoprotein in your blood.

  • Eating foods high in saturated fats and trans fats
  • Drinking a lot of alcohol
  • Smoking
  • Not being physically active
  • Being overweight
  • Having type 2 diabetes
  • Taking steroids or medication for HIV/AIDS or blood pressure
  • Having HIV/AIDS or chronic kidney disease
  • Being African-American

Important to know: After menopause, women also tend to have higher cholesterol levels than before.

How to Reduce LDL Cholesterol Levels

Doctors prescribe medication such as statins, bile acid sequestrants, or PCSK9 inhibitors to reduce blood cholesterol.

However, many lifestyle changes can also help lower and manage bad cholesterol, which you can make along with taking medication. Let’s take a closer look at some of them.

#1 Become more physically active

The American Heart Association recommends that adults engage in 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise to lower cholesterol and blood pressure.

Jogging, cycling, and walking briskly are all effective ways to keep your LDL in check. Aim for around 30 minutes of exercise 5 days a week.

Even small changes like taking the stairs can add up to your total exercise time. So think twice about taking the elevator!

#2 Lose extra weight

Carrying extra weight beyond a normal BMI is one of the major risk factors for high cholesterol levels. Being overweight makes it more difficult for your body to remove LDL cholesterol.

Exercising is a good first step toward reaching a healthy weight, but it’s often not enough. You have to burn more calories than you take while ensuring that you eat enough macronutrients to stay healthy. This brings us to the next point.

#3 Eat a healthy diet

A heart-healthy diet can help you lower high blood cholesterol levels. At the same time, it can reduce the risk of heart disease from causes other than atherosclerosis and improve your overall health.

Your body can make all the cholesterol it needs. So the first step to a heart-healthy diet is to avoid foods high in cholesterol. These include:

  • Foods high in saturated fats such as dairy, fatty meat, and tropical oils. Sweets like milk chocolate, ice cream, or pastries are also high in saturated fat.
  • Foods high in trans fats (liquid oils turned into solid fats). The usual culprits are margarine, commercially baked goods, fried foods, and frozen pizza.

Next, you want to eat more foods that are good for your heart. These include:

  • Foods low in saturated and trans fats. Think vegetables, fruits, whole grains, seafood, and lean meat. Learn more about the best foods to lower cholesterol.
  • Foods high in soluble fiber, such as beans, legumes, oatmeal, vegetables, and fruits. Soluble fiber reduces the absorption of cholesterol in the bloodstream.
  • Foods low in salt. For example, cook dry beans instead of buying canned beans as the latter has plenty of salt. Some studies associate high sodium levels in people with hypertension with higher blood cholesterol levels.
  • Foods without added sugar. Make your own smoothie or drink water instead of sweetened beverages. Research indicates that added sugar in processed foods can increase cholesterol levels.

#4 Stop smoking

Smoking is another major risk factor leading to high cholesterol levels. Research indicates that smoking significantly increases both total cholesterol and LDL.

Cigarette smoke has more than 7,000 chemicals. Quitting smoking is one of the best things you can do, not just for your cholesterol but for your overall health.

#5 Limit drinking alcohol

Your liver breaks down alcohol into triglycerides and cholesterol. Regularly consuming alcohol will likely increase your cholesterol levels.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend reducing daily alcohol intake to 2 drinks or less for men and 1 drink or less for women.

What is a good LDL cholesterol level for men?

A good LDL for men is under 100mg/dL. This is true at any age, whether young adult, middle-aged, or senior.

What is a good LDL cholesterol level for women?

A good LDL for adult women is below 100mg/dL. This remains true at any age, including during and after menopause.

Note that pregnant women may have elevated total cholesterol levels during the second and third trimesters. Doctors usually don’t treat these as they return to normal several weeks after delivery.

What is a good LDL cholesterol level for kids?

Good LDL in kids and teenagers falls under 100mg/dL. This is the same LDL level that healthy adults should aim for.

A Word From Our MD

Your body needs cholesterol to function properly. But your risk for serious heart disease increases exponentially when bad cholesterol exceeds high-density lipoprotein cholesterol.

Getting your cholesterol checked regularly is the first step in preventing the buildup of LDL in your blood. Catching elevated LDL levels early enables you to avoid a diet high in fatty foods that have saturated and trans fats.

It can also motivate you to exercise regularly, lose weight, quit smoking, and reduce your alcohol intake. The NIH National Heart, Lungs, and Blood Institute recommends all these methods as effective ways to manage cholesterol.

Together, these measures can help you effectively manage cholesterol levels without the need for medication.

The key thing to remember is that high cholesterol isn’t only a consequence of what you eat but of your lifestyle in general.

It’s better to prevent high LDL in the first place than having to deal with the increased risk of heart disease that comes with it. More than keeping your artery walls free from plaque, you’ll help your entire body stay healthy.

Key Takeaways

Whether you’ve been told you have high LDL or just want to prevent high cholesterol in the years to come, here are the things to remember:

  • A family history of high cholesterol could predispose you to high LDL levels.
  • But, in most cases, your diet and lifestyle lead to too much LDL and overall cholesterol.
  • Your body can make sufficient cholesterol, including good cholesterol, which is called HDL.
  • Aim for low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels under 100mg/dL.
  • An LDL level beyond 100mg/dL can increase the risk of heart disease.
  • High LDL levels lead to a buildup of plaque on artery walls that cause atherosclerosis and heart disease.
  • Avoid foods high in saturated fats, trans fats, sodium, and added sugar to remove LDL cholesterol and manage total cholesterol.
  • Manage your cholesterol levels better by getting your cholesterol checked regularly through a lipid profile and keeping track of test results.

Maintaining healthy cholesterol levels doesn’t have to be a struggle. Get your cholesterol checked as soon as possible and follow the recommended lifestyle changes. 

That way, you’ll be decreasing bad cholesterol while increasing good cholesterol and making your life so much easier!

Cardi Health
  • Personalized activity plan to suit the user
  • Personalized nutrition plan
  • Takes into account dietary requirements, preferences, and allergies
  • Action plans generated from the tracking tool
  • Real-time insights into your heart’s health performance
Our rating:
Start Cardi.Health Quiz
Written by
Edibel Quintero is a medical doctor who graduated in 2013 from the University of Zulia and has been working in her profession since then. She specializes in obesity and nutrition, physical rehabilitation, sports massage and post-operative rehabilitation. Edibel’s goal is to help people live healthier lives by educating them about food, exercise, mental wellness and other lifestyle choices that can improve their quality of life.
Medically reviewed by Rosmy Barrios, MD
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