Family History of Heart Disease? Here’s What You Need to Do
A family history of coronary artery disease can increase your risk of heart attack and stroke. But there are steps you can take to lower your risk.
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 Sapna Legha, MD. 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. Legha notes. Here’s how to make sense of them all.
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 freak out. But it’s certainly worth noting, Dr. Legha 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. Legha 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.
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. Legha says. These lifestyle changes will help protect your heart:
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.