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Heart disease runs in my family. What does that mean for me?

Recently, a man visited his doctor with complaints of chest pain and shortness of breath. “Does heart disease run in your family?” his doctor asked.

“Doc,” the man replied, “No one runs in my family!”

We may have a good chuckle about that one. But it’s true that a common question your doctors will ask throughout your life is about your family history. Specifically, your medical care team will always want to know whether your previous generations or siblings have suffered from heart disease.

You may be wondering why the interest. “Yes, heart disease runs in my family,” you may answer. But in your mind, you’re wondering, What does that have to do with me and my health?

Good question. Here’s what a family history of heart disease means for you today.

It means you may be predisposed to certain heart conditions

Don’t jump to conclusions here. Just because a mother, father, sibling, grandmother or grandfather suffered a cardiac event or cardiovascular condition doesn’t mean you will inherit heart disease, too. It just means you’re at higher risk for a similar prognosis.

According to the National Institutes for Health, on average, people in a family with heart disease have a 50/50 chance of inheriting the condition themselves.

While you cannot change your family medical history, the good news is that you can certainly influence your other risk factors. Doing so increases your chance of a long, happy, healthy, heart-disease-free life.

It means you should know exactly what your family members experienced—and when

To sway the odds in your favor, start by learning all you can about the cardiovascular abnormalities any of your close family members have had. Ask questions like…

  • Did the heart disease occur in otherwise healthy people?
  • At what age did the condition appear? Was it earlier in life?
  • How were those conditions treated? Did the treatments work? How long did the person live after learning of their heart disease?
  • What was the person’s lifestyle like? Did they smoke or drink excessively? Overindulge in rich foods regularly?
  • Were regular doctor’s visits a part of your family members’ lives?
  • Are there other ethnic factors at play?

The most common cardiovascular diseases cardiovascular diseases—in order of prevalence—are ischemic heart disease (heart attack), cerebrovascular disease (stroke), hypertension (high blood pressure), inflammatory heart disease and rheumatic heart disease.

Heart attacks alone affect 12.7% of the world’s population.

So, chances are you’re likely connected to someone with one form of heart disease or another. The more details you know about each heart condition in your family, the better equipped you’ll be to collaborate with your medical care providers.

It means you should communicate with your primary care physician

That’s right. After learning all you can about your family’s history of heart disease, the next step is to share your knowledge with your doctor. They’ll likely ask more clarifying questions like what kind of heart disease did your family members experience? The possibilities are vast. They could have experienced:

  • Coronary artery disease (CAD) or the process of (called atherosclerosis)
  • Heart attack (or Myocardial infarction [MI])
  • High cholesterol
  • Angina (pressure in the chest)
  • Arrhythmias
  • Cardiomyopathy
  • Congenital heart defects
  • Heart failure

… or other cardiac conditions like aneurysm, stroke, hypertension and more.

It means you should take a few extra precautionary steps

Knowing is not enough. To influence your chances of a long, healthy life, you need to take action.

Start by being diligent with a heart-healthy lifestyle. The American Heart Association recommends making seven lifestyle changes to reduce your chances of developing heart disease, whether or not you’re genetically predisposed.

  • Get a handle on your blood pressure. Get an at-home blood pressure monitor and take a reading regularly. Record your results and watch for trends. If your numbers start creeping upward, reduce your salt intake, increase your vegetable consumption, move your body, get better sleep and manage your stress.
  • Manage your cholesterol. Don’t let this natural substance proliferate your arteries, causing dangerous plaque buildup in the arteries. Get tested regularly and if your doctor notices your cholesterol is higher than normal, tweak your diet and move your body to regulate your numbers and prevent future cardiovascular trouble. And if your doctor prescribes medicine, be sure to stay on top of your dosing regimen.
  • Lower your blood sugar. Habitually high blood sugar strains your body’s ability to regulate glucose levels naturally. Over time, this can lead to insulin resistance and eventually type 2 diabetes. Managing your weight and enjoying a low-sugar diet can help you keep blood sugar in check.
  • Move more. Yes, exercise has a direct effect on your cardiovascular health. Aim for at least 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity per week, or 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity each week.
  • Improve your diet. Swap out salty snacks for fresh fruits and veggies. Exchange fatty red meats with lean chicken and fish. And consider switching hydrogenated oils and butter for alternatives like olive oil, coconut oil or avocado oil.
  • Lose weight. Maintaining a healthy weight is one of the best ways to influence your odds of avoiding heart disease, even if you have a family history of cardiovascular problems. Research shows that even weight loss of as little as 5-10% can significantly lower your chances of heart disease.
  • Quit smoking. Smoking tobacco has long been linked to heart disease. In fact, between 24 and 48 hours after your last cigarette, your chances of heart attack have already decreased.

It means you should get familiar with your options

Finally, just be prepared. Have a relationship already established with a doctor who knows your family history, your lifestyle choices and your current health condition. This way, you’ll always have an expert in your corner to answer questions, help you lower your risk and refer you to a heart care specialist if needed.

What’s your heart disease risk? Take the quiz and find out.

About the author

Andres Leal, MD
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Andres Leal, MD, is a cardiothoracic surgeon on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White All Saints Medical Center – Fort Worth specializing in adult cardiovascular surgery and general thoracic surgery. His professional interests include treatment of thoracic aortic disease, coronary revascularization, minimally invasive aortic valve replacement, arrhythmia surgery and mechanical support (LVAD and ECMO). After finishing his internship and residency in general surgery, Dr. Leal went on to complete fellowship training in cardiothoracic surgery, heart transplantation and mechanical support. Get to know Dr. Leal.

Heart disease runs in my family. What does that mean for me?