October 29, 2023

What a Family History of Heart Disease Means for Your Health

Knowing what you can do to prevent or manage heart disease is half the battle

generational family at home

Your older sister has high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Your dad had a heart attack at age 50. And now, as you’re staring down adulthood and the rest of your middle ages, you’re wondering: Should I be worried?

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Family history of heart disease definitely factors into your story, says cardiologist Christine Jellis, MD, PhD. And it’s something you and your healthcare providers should consider when determining your risk for heart disease. Family history isn’t the only character in this tale, though. Many other factors play a big role in keeping your heart healthy.

Dr. Jellis explains how to make the most of your family history, along with things you can do to prevent the onset of heart disease.

What does family history mean?

Your family history is a record of diseases and conditions in your immediate and extended biological family. Your family history also accounts for other things that impact your health, like lifestyle and behavioral patterns related to exercise and nutrition or the environment in which you and your family members live.

You want to keep a record of these details because if a close family member has had a condition or chronic disease, that will often increase your risk of developing the same condition. That risk is then escalated even further if more than one family member has had the condition or if signs and symptoms developed at an earlier age. All of this is possible because of specific gene mutations in your DNA. So, it’s important to have your family review medical records and death records and have conversations about family health history early on.

What types of heart disease have a genetic risk?

When it comes to your heart, you’ll want to look for a family history of cardiovascular diseases and other heart-related issues or conditions that may run in your family. Having this information can be a big step in preventing heart disease in the future. Some of the heart-related issues you want to look for in your family history include:

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This list, though long, still doesn’t include everything that plays a part in your inherited risk for heart disease, but it certainly offers a good starting point. When you know your family history, you’ll want to share that information with your primary care physician or other healthcare providers if you’re concerned about your heart health. They can then put you in touch with a cardiologist who can use your family history alongside other testing to calculate your risk for developing heart disease and to determine your heart’s health at any stage.

Coronary artery disease

Most commonly, when people talk about heart disease, they’re usually referring to coronary artery disease — the most common type of heart disease that causes more than 370,000 deaths in the U.S. each year.

Coronary artery disease begins when plaque builds up in the walls of your arteries that feed blood into your heart. As your arteries get narrower, blood has a harder time sneaking through. This can lead to heart attack or stroke.

Because it’s so common, it’s not unusual to have a family member who’s been diagnosed with coronary artery disease. This doesn’t mean you need to panic. But it’s certainly worth noting.

“You are at increased risk if you have a parent or sibling with a history of heart disease before age 55 for males or 65 for females,” Dr. Jellis says. If that describes you, she recommends seeing a cardiologist sooner rather than later. They have the experience to weigh all the various risk factors — and craft a treatment plan that will help you bring that risk down.

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Is there anything you can do to prevent heart disease if you have a family history?

While family history matters, your parents’ fate is not your own. Heredity is just one checkmark on a long list of risk factors. And that’s good news, as many of those factors are things you can manage.

“You can’t change your family history, but you can take steps to change those other factors,” Dr. Jellis reiterates.

These lifestyle changes can help protect your heart:

  • Avoid tobacco. Smoking is one of the worst things you can do for your heart, Dr. Jellis says. Tobacco in any form is a bad idea — if you use it, quit. That means no smoking, no chewing tobacco, no vaping. Ask your primary care doctor for ways you can quit.
  • Limit alcohol. Have you heard that red wine is good for the heart? There’s a caveat. Whatever your drink of choice, moderation matters. “Moderate” consumption equals no more than two drinks per day for men and just one for women. (Five ounces of wine or 12 ounces of beer counts as a single drink, so watch your pour.)
  • Eat well. Dr. Jellis recommends a Mediterranean-style diet centered on fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts and olive oil. Include some fish and poultry, but go easy on red meat, dairy products, processed meat and sugary treats.
  • Exercise. Your heart is a muscle at the center of your circulatory system, so it needs flexing. You can help that process along by boosting your physical activity. Get at least 30 minutes of moderate aerobic activity, five days a week. (Find an activity you enjoy, and it’ll be a whole lot easier to get into the groove.)
  • Manage your numbers. Both high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels increase the risk of a heart attack. You can keep them in check with lifestyle changes and, in some cases, medication.
  • Manage your weight. Yes, it can be easier said than done. But if your family history puts you at risk of a heart attack, that’s a perfect reason to work toward a healthy weight. Having overweight puts more pressure on your heart to pump life-saving blood throughout your body — and being underweight can increase your risk for heart disease, too. Doing what you can, then, to help your heart work more efficiently should always be the focus.

The bottom line

There’s one last thing you can do, too: Avoid blaming yourself, your parents or other family members. No one asks to be born with their inherited family history, but knowing what’s at stake can at least give you the tools you need to take action and prevent some of the worst-case scenarios. Your heart — and your family — will thank you for doing what you can.

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