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Can Your Family History Determine Your Risk for Heart Disease?

Your family medical history should be as familiar to you as your own medical history. Yet, most adults are unfamiliar with their family's medical past. What's contained in it could be the determining factor between enjoying a lifetime of good health or encountering an unexpected medical condition.

Am I at Risk?
Even if you do know your family medical history, you could still be at risk for a variety of serious cardiovascular conditions, including coronary artery disease, peripheral vascular disease, valve disease and arrhythmia. UAB Cardiologist Todd Brown, M.D., explains, "Heart disease risk is a combination of genetic and environmental factors. A family history actually belongs in both of these categories."

A family history of a disease is not the only determining factor - lifestyle habits also contribute to your risk. "Family members often share lifestyle choices as well. So, individuals grow up eating a certain diet and may continue to do so into adulthood. Their cardiovascular risk that is ‘familial' may actually be a combination of genetic and environmental factors," says Brown.

Someone who is a smoker, has diabetes, high cholesterol or hypertension with a family history of coronary artery disease (CAD) is at a greater disadvantage than a person with just a family history of CAD. The "family history" of eating high-fat, high-sugar and processed foods plays as much a part as having a family history of heart disease.

How Can I Lower My Risk?
Knowing a thorough history of blood relatives--both deceased and living--is a good start. Be honest when reporting all of your family history to your doctor. A physician doesn't know what screenings to run if he doesn't know all of the history. A thorough examination can be the key to prevention.

Being pro-active in your own health can make a difference, such as getting an early screening if your family has a history of heart disease. Unfortunately, not all types of heart diseases can be detected through screening, but lifestyle factors that can increase your risk can be controlled to lower it. "There are not screening recommendations for every cardiac disease. For example, if an individual has a family history of CAD, the best thing they can do is control their own personal modifiable risk factors," says Brown.

Staying Healthy
There are some things you just can't change about yourself, such as your age and gender. However, lifestyle factors such as quitting smoking, eating a healthy diet, exercising and managing cholesterol levels can make a huge impact on lowering your risk.

Look at your family. Close relatives such as parents and siblings are good indicators of how your family is affected by a particular disease. If a parent died at an early age from peripheral vascular disease, and your sister was diagnosed with the same disease, there is a greater risk that you could inherit the disease as well.

However, just because you are at risk for heart disease does not mean that you have it. "There is no single gene that causes CAD. The genetic component of CAD is likely polygenic (made up of more than one gene). Some forms of arrhythmia, as well as some forms of inherited cardiomyopathies (weakening of the heart muscle), can be linked to single genetic mutations," explains Brown. Preventative measures and healthy lifestyle changes are important, because they can help deter the disease.

Am I Still at Risk if I am Healthy?
Even though you are healthy, don't smoke, have normal cholesterol and blood pressure levels and are at a normal weight, that doesn't mean you are in the clear yet. If you have a family history of heart disease, you are still at risk for developing heart disease. Why?

"The issue here, again, is the combination of genetic and environmental factors. If you have a strong family history of CAD and you control all of your environmental risk factors, you are still left with your genetic risk factors, which are uncontrollable," explains Brown. That's why keeping up a healthy lifestyle and visiting your doctor regularly is so essential to helping lower your chances of developing heart disease.

If you are concerned about your family history of heart disease, talk to your doctor. To schedule an appointment with a UAB doctor, call HealthFinder at 1-800-UAB-8816.