Cholesterol, Triglycerides, and Associated Lipoproteins

In: Clinical Methods: The History, Physical, and Laboratory Examinations. 3rd edition. Boston: Butterworths; 1990. Chapter 31.


Cholesterol, triglycerides, and high-density lipoproteins are important constituents of the lipid fraction of the human body. Cholesterol is an unsaturated alcohol of the steroid family of compounds; it is essential for the normal function of all animal cells and is a fundamental element of their cell membranes. It is also a precursor of various critical substances such as adrenal and gonadal steroid hormones and bile acids. Triglycerides are fatty acid esters of glycerol and represent the main lipid component of dietary fat and fat depots of animals.

Cholesterol and triglycerides, being nonpolar lipid substances (insoluble in water), need to be transported in the plasma associated with various lipoprotein particles. Plasma lipoproteins are separated by hydrated density; electrophretic mobility; size; and their relative content of cholesterol, triglycerides, and protein into five major classes: chylomicrons, very-low-density lipoproteins (VLDL), intermediate-density lipoproteins (IDL), low-density lipoproteins (LDL), and high-density lipoproteins (HDL).

Since the levels of plasma lipids have a bell-shaped distribution in the general population, the definition of either a high or a low value of these substances has remained an arbitrary statistical decision. High values have been traditionally considered as those in the 90th and 95th percentiles; low values were considered to be those below the 5th percentile. The NIH Concensus Conference has recently revised the values concerning cholesterol, however, in view of clear evidence of an increased risk of coronary atherosclerosis in persons falling in the 75th to 90th percentiles. According to this last statement, cholesterol levels below 200 mg/dl are classified as "desirable blood cholesterol," those 200 to 239 mg/dl as "borderline-high blood cholesterol," and those 240 mg/dl and above as "high blood cholesterol."

Publication types

  • Review