Talking about heart conditions and other health problems may not be ideal family dinner conversation, but it could improve the health of people you love the most.
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Certain traits you share with your direct relatives can strongly influence your heart health now and in the future.
Knowing your family history of heart problems helps you predict and get screening for specific types of cardiovascular disease, and may enable you to intervene before problems occur.
Many conditions run in the family
It’s well known that heart attacks run in families, but there are other heart conditions that have a genetic link, says Benico Barzilai, MD, Section Head of Clinical Cardiology at Cleveland Clinic. “We now know that family history plays an important role in more than just heart attack. Family history also plays an important role in the risk of aneurysm or abnormal enlargement of the aorta, and cardiomyopathy or weakened heart and certain causes of sudden cardiac death.”
Genetic testing and screening is a rapidly growing field, says Dr. Barzilai, “As we learn more and more about the genetic components behind certain kinds of cardiovascular disease, we will be able to predict who will need screening or medical intervention within a family.”
Be your family’s health reporter
The best way to learn about your family history is to ask questions and talk, especially at family gatherings. Then draw a family tree and record health information under each relative’s name. Track down family medical records and death certificates to make sure that your history is as complete and accurate as possible.
The U.S. Surgeon General and the Department of Health and Human Services offer more information, and you can also use this tool for collecting a family health history. The “My Family Health Portrait” bookmark can also help you get started.
After talking history, then what?
First, share this information with your doctor.
Your doctor will assess your risk of disease based on your family history and other factors. Your doctor may also recommend things you can do to help prevent disease, such as exercising more, changing your diet or using screening tests to detect disease early.
If you have a strong family history of heart disease, your doctor may refer you to a genetic counselor. Genetic counselors are health care professionals who specialize in family history risk assessment. The genetic counselor will work with you and your doctor to make sure you are getting the care you need based on your particular family history.
Share this information with your immediate and extended family, and make sure that you update medical information regularly.
Encourage family members to see their doctors or specialists or to visit your doctor to learn more about their own risk factors.
Build on history for better health
Heart disease is part nature, and part self-nurture. Some siblings who share risk factors have very different health outcomes because they have very different lifestyles.
People with a family history of chronic disease may have the most to gain from making lifestyle changes. In many cases, making these changes can reduce your risk of disease even if the disease runs in your family.
Even if you don’t find heart disease in your family history, it still could exist. People’s memories aren’t perfect and, in previous generations, many people died of other causes before faulty genes ever showed their hand.
If you have a strong family history of a heart condition, schedule an appointment with your doctor to talk about getting screenings and reducing your risk.