Your older sister has high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Your dad had a heart attack at age 50. Now you’re facing down middle age (how did that happen?!) and wondering: Should I be worried?
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Family history of heart disease definitely factors into your story, says cardiologist Christine Jellis, MD, Ph.D. And it’s something you (and your doctors) 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 notes. Here’s how to make sense of them all.
Coronary artery disease in the family
When people talk about heart disease, they’re usually referring to coronary artery disease. It’s the most common type of heart disease and causes more than 370,000 deaths in the U.S. each year.
Coronary artery disease begins when plaque builds up on the walls of the arteries that feed the heart. As the 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 has been diagnosed with coronary artery disease. This doesn’t mean you need to panic. But it’s certainly worth noting, Dr. Jellis says.
“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 than later. They have the experience to weigh all of the various risk factors — and craft a treatment plan that will help you bring that risk down.
Taking control of heart disease risk factors
While family history matters, your parents’ fate is not your own. Heredity is just one check mark on a long list of risk factors. And that’s good news, since many of those factors are things you can control.
“You can’t change your family history, but you can take steps to change those other factors,” Dr. Jellis says. These lifestyle changes will 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.
- 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. You know what you need to do. 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.)
- Control 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.
- Lose weight. Yes, it’s 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.
One more thing you can do: Skip blaming your mom or dad (they didn’t ask for this family history, either) and take action instead. Your heart — and your family — will thank you.