Your Family Tree Can Reveal Heart Disease Risks

Medical experts know that certain risk factors play important roles in a person’s chances of developing heart disease. They also understand that the risk for heart disease tends to run in families. By looking at your health history family tree, you can learn which risk factors you may have inherited and use this information to make lifestyle choices for maintaining a healthier heart.

A family health history is a record of health information about a person and his or her relatives. A complete record includes information from three generations of relatives. One way to think of this health history is to imagine branches of a tree that represent parents, siblings, grandparents and great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. A family history of a particular health condition means that a relative has, or has had, that condition. By looking at patterns of conditions among relatives, doctors can learn if you have an increased risk of developing a particular condition.

Risk for Heart Disease

In many cases, if you have a family history of a heart condition, your chances of getting a heart condition may be higher than normal. Heart disease refers to variety of conditions that affect the heart’s structure and function.

The most common type of heart disease is coronary heart disease (CHD), sometimes called coronary artery disease. CHD occurs when plaque (fat, cholesterol, calcium, and other substances in the blood) builds up in the arteries. This condition, sometimes called clogged arteries, is known as atherosclerosis. Plaque limits the amount of oxygen-rich blood getting to your heart, which can cause chest pain. Plaque also can lead to blood clots, which are the most common cause of a heart attack.

Because heart disease can be passed down through generations, patients may wonder if their grandfather’s serious heart condition indicates that they will have the same problem, for example. That patient may be more worried if a brother or sister has a heart condition or has suffered a cardiac event. The answers to those questions do not offer a prediction, they only estimate your risk factors. Risk factors for heart disease include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, and diabetes, but family medical history is also a risk factor.

The best indicator of an inherited risk for heart disease is if any first-degree relative (a parent, brother, or sister) is diagnosed with heart disease. Your estimated risk level considers whether your parents or siblings had a heart problem or cardiac event before age 55. This might indicate that you are at greater risk for heart disease than someone who does not have that family history. The health history of second-degree relatives (grandparents, aunts, and uncles) also can be useful in estimating your heart disease risk.

Changing the Course of History

People who have family members with heart disease are more likely to develop heart disease, but it’s important to note that they can lower this risk by reducing their other risk factors. You can’t go back and change the past, but right now is a good time to do some things that may improve your own hearth health. You may even limit risks for others along future branches of your family tree.

There are steps you can take to lower your risk. If you share a detailed family history with your doctor that shows your increased risk, he or she may recommend having screenings at an earlier age and more often. Better still, some risk factors can be changed, treated, or modified through lifestyle changes and healthy habits, such as:

  • Following a heart-healthy diet
  • Increasing physical activity
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Knowing and controlling blood pressure and cholesterol levels
  • Managing stress
  • Not smoking

Click here to learn about lifestyle changes that can improve your heart health.

Follow the Branches

The easiest way to get information about family health history is to talk to relatives. Ask them if they’ve had any heart problems or heart-related medical events, and when those events happened. A family gathering could be a good time to talk about it. Looking at medical records and other documents, such as obituaries and death certificates, can help complete a family health history. It is important to keep this information up to date and share it with your doctor. To better organize the data, you can fill in a family tree chart on the American Heart Association website.

By exploring the branches of a family heart health tree, looking at risks, and discussing a plan for controlling them with your doctor, you may reduce your own risk for heart attack and heart disease.

Specialists with the UAB Cardiovascular Institute can help you better understand and manage your risk for heart disease. Click here to learn more.


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