It is important to be aware of cholesterol numbers because high cholesterol is one of the major controllable risk factors for coronary heart disease, heart attack and stroke. There’s no better time than right now to know your numbers.

When you get the results of your cholesterol blood test you should know your total cholesterol, HDL cholesterol and LDL cholesterol. The desirable total cholesterol level is 200 mg/dL or below.

Low density lipoprotein (LDL), also known as “bad” cholesterol, is considered a good gauge for risk of heart attack and stroke. It is the LDL, along with other substances, that builds up on artery walls forming a thick plaque that narrows arteries and makes them less flexible. When a clot forms and blocks an artery, a heart attack or stroke can be the result. It is optimal for LDL to be below 100 mg/dL.

High density lipoprotein (HDL) is referred to as the “good” cholesterol. High levels of HDL can provide some protection against heart attack and stroke. HDL helps keep the LDL from building up on artery walls. For men, the average HDL reading is 40 to 50 mg/dL. In women, it is 50 to 60 mg/dL. Less than 40 for men and less than 50 for women puts you at a higher risk for heart disease. Above 60 mg/dL provides protection against heart disease.

There are some things that impact cholesterol that you have no control over — they include age and heredity. Cholesterol levels increase as we age and high cholesterol tends to run in families. There just isn’t anything you can do to change your genes.

However, you can control your diet, weight and physical activity, all of which can impact your cholesterol numbers. Pay attention to saturated fat, trans fat and dietary cholesterol — the body makes cholesterol from saturated and trans fats. Saturated fats are found in foods like high-fat meat, cheese, milk and butter. (Remember that there are plenty of meats that are lean, and milk and cheese come in low-fat and non-fat varieties.) Check food labels to find the amounts of trans and saturated fats, and eat as little as possible.

Being overweight can increase your cholesterol numbers and is also a risk factor for heart disease. Be sure to get 30 minutes of physical activity most days of the week.

Everyone over the age of 20 should have their cholesterol checked at least every five years. If you have high cholesterol or are at risk for heart disease, have it checked more often.