Maybe your grandfather had two heart attacks. Or your sister has high cholesterol. Perhaps your dad has high blood pressure. Maybe you just found out your mom has coronary artery disease. The questions are only natural: Is heart disease really genetic? And if heart disease is hereditary, will I be next?
Having a family history of heart disease can mean you’re at higher risk for developing a heart condition yourself. But everyone’s situation is different.
Let’s dig into the details to explore how family history affects your health, situations when genetic heart disease might be more common and what you can do to reduce hereditary heart disease risk.
How does my family history affect my health?
There comes a time when many of us pause for a moment and wonder: “Am I starting to find my dad’s corny jokes funny?”
Sense of humor included, you get a lot from your parents. From your values to your love of travel to your basketball skills, they and the rest of your family help shape the many shades of who you are.
But you can also pick up other things from your relatives, notably: Your risk of certain health conditions.
Genes and hereditary heart disease
Genetics play a big role in how you and your family are built. You inherit not only features from your parents, but also unique things about how your body works and functions. These are all passed down from generation to generation, eventually arriving at you.
For example, maybe you come from a family of people who are shorter or taller or who often have red hair. Genes influence these characteristics.
That heredity can also play a big role in your family’s chances of having heart disease issues like high blood pressure, heart attacks and congestive heart failure. In addition, there are some rare cardiac conditions you may not have heard of that tend to run in families. For example, lipid disorders like familial hypercholesterolemia – when your body doesn’t process cholesterol efficiently – can greatly impact your heart health.
Being at risk for health problems isn’t only up to genetics. It’s a mix of several things that begin when you’re young, including:
- The environment and circumstances you’re raised in.
- The habits and attitudes you learn and develop, such as regular exercise.
- The dietary preferences you pick up.
And a whole lot more. These early factors affect your behaviors later in life, and they help set up your lifestyle. In the end, nature and nurture affect your tendency to develop or not develop certain health conditions.
Figuring out what’s ahead
So, how do you get the full story on what might be in store for your heart health? It all starts with finding out what sort of heart problems – and other health conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure – your family members have dealt with.
While age, race, ethnicity, gender and other factors can generally affect your risk for heart disease, finding out what conditions tend to run in your family can help you get a better sense of your specific risk.
When you do this, you can come away knowing what to look for, and you can be more proactive about taking charge of your own health. That could mean talking to your doctor about prevention and special screenings, including blood tests for potential heart problems. Or it could mean taking a unique approach to managing heart disease symptoms, like using different medications or making lifestyle tweaks earlier than others.
Either way, the benefits of knowing your family’s medical history are clear. But what’s the easiest way to start looking into that history?
How can I research my family health history?
Your immediate family – your siblings, parents and grandparents – has the greatest impact on your personal health. So these are the family members you should start with.
If you feel comfortable, ask them about what kind of health issues they’ve experienced that you don’t know about. If they’re willing to share, make a note of the information, including their symptoms and when they were diagnosed. You can also ask for more details about the conditions you were already aware of. With this information, you may be able to start seeing patterns.
If you can, it’s also useful to check in with your extended family, including aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and that long-lost cousin you hit it off with at the family reunion last summer.
Public records can also be helpful for looking back generations. When you have a wider picture, you might find out more about issues that tend to appear on one side of your family, skip generations or only affect certain genders or ethnicities.
Am I at higher risk for genetic heart disease?
In general, if one of your close male family members was diagnosed with heart disease or had a heart condition before age 55 – or one of your close female family members before age 65 – you may be at higher risk. Developing heart disease, including coronary artery disease, before these ages is considered early.
Ethnicity can also influence your risk. For example, African-Americans and South Asians tend to be diagnosed with heart disease at higher rates.
But it’s different for every person and every family. Keep in mind that just because you might be predisposed to a certain heart condition, that doesn’t mean you’ll develop it. Your doctor can help you determine your unique level of risk for heart disease.
What can I do about a family history of heart disease?
Unfortunately, we can’t control our genes – whether that’s heart disease risk or a receding hairline. But remember: Your family didn’t ask for these things any more than you did, so try to cut them some slack.
Also remember that it’s not just about your family history – it’s about your future behaviors and habits, too. You can start making lifestyle changes to reduce your heart disease risk today. These steps and choices are things that are very much in your control.
In fact, one study found that by living a healthy lifestyle, people at high genetic susceptibility for coronary artery disease were able to reduce their risk by nearly half, compared with an unhealthy lifestyle. Another study found that while heredity does play a role in heart disease, heart-healthy behaviors may actually be more important.
Regardless of your genetics or family history of heart disease, it’s essential to take these steps so you can help build your heart health:
- Cut out smoking and tobacco use. Quitting smoking or tobacco use can have a big positive effect on your heart and blood vessels.
- Stop or moderate your alcohol use. That generally means no more than two drinks per day for men, or one drink per day for women.
- Get enough exercise. How much is enough? At least 2.5 hours every week, split up however you prefer.
- Eat a heart-healthy diet. A heart-healthy diet is filled with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats and fish (and not filled with excessive salt or sugar).
- Know the signs of trouble. Make sure you know the warning signs of a heart attack so you’ll be able to respond quickly if you notice any usual symptoms. Also know that heart attacks are more common in cold weather.
If this feels overwhelming, don’t worry: You don’t need to do everything at once. Sometimes even small changes can add up to big results.
Do I need to talk to a cardiologist?
Above all, if you have a family history of heart trouble, both your primary care doctor and a cardiologist can be useful resources. Consider talking with them sooner rather than later. Now is always the right time to take care of your heart, and you shouldn’t delay care because you’re not sure whether you need it.
Your primary care doctor can help you manage things like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and obesity, which are all known to increase risk for heart disease. They can also help you prevent these conditions before they appear or keep them under control to stop them from becoming something that needs serious intervention.
In addition to helping you manage heart conditions, a cardiologist can give you personalized advice and suggestions for how to be proactive about genetic risk factors, or other risk factors related to your personal health or lifestyle. For example, they might suggest you take a low-dose aspirin for your heart.
The earlier you start to look into your heart health – and start working on a plan to keep your heart healthy – the less you’ll need to worry about family risk factors coming into play down the line.
Whether or not you have heart disease risk factors, your cardiologist can also recommend which heart disease tests and screenings are worth looking into, given your personal family history.
Your heart health is up to you
When it’s all said and done, your parents and relatives may have set you on a path, but you’re the one who’s walking it.
No matter where you come from or how you’re raised, you decide where to work, where to live, how to dress, what to do in your spare time and so much more – including what to do about your health and how your heart ages.
Family history or not, you have the power to make good choices for your heart, and today is the perfect time to start.