There are many risk factors that contribute to heart disease, such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and being overweight or obese.
But, the most prevalent indication that someone is at risk for developing cardiovascular issues is a family history of it.
When one or more blood relatives has had heart disease, there’s a greater chance that you will experience it, according to the National Institutes of Health. Even more, how early your family members experienced heart disease is an indicator of the probability. If your father or brother had a heart attack before age 55, or if your mother or sister had one before age 65, you are more likely to get heart disease yourself, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
The reason family history is the main indicator of someone’s likelihood of developing heart disease is because of genetics. Genetics, or the characteristics you inherit from your parents, influence many of cardiovascular disease risk factors, such as a predisposition for obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cholesterol levels.
Genes control the way the cardiovascular system operates, from the strength of the blood vessels to the way the cells in the heart communicate.
There are even some types of heart disease that are more likely to be passed down genetically than others. The two most common diseases are one that thickens part of the heart muscle, preventing proper blood flow and forcing the heart to pump harder than it needs to, and one that weakens the muscle, which doesn’t allow blood to pump efficiently and leads to heart failure.
It’s important to note that even with the strong connection between family history and the likelihood of a heart disease diagnosis, it doesn’t mean that heart disease will be automatically inherited.
In fact, an emerging field called epigenetics studies how your lifestyle, including diet, exercise, weight, and environmental factors like exposure to pollution and pesticides, smoking, and diet can influence how genes express themselves.
Doctors agree that outside interactions with genes are more powerful than the genetic makeup itself in determining overall risk for heart disease.
In one well-known study led by Massachusetts General Hospital, people with the highest genetic predisposition for heart disease were able to cut their risk in half through lifestyle modifications.
If you do have a family history of heart disease, don’t panic. Instead, take charge of your lifestyle and follow these three steps to start a prevention plan with your doctor.
Find out the full extent of your family history. This includes looking back three generations, spanning children, siblings, parents, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, grandparents, and cousins. Mark down what conditions or symptoms each experienced and at what age this occurred. Even if you can’t track down every person’s history, write down as much as you can. It will help your doctor form a more accurate treatment plan.
Ask about in-depth testing
Once you have a thorough idea of what your risk factors are, you can pinpoint your testing beyond basic cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Most doctors will be inclined to test at an earlier age than tests are typically done to be proactive about identifying risk factors. Tests might include checking for nontraditional markers, such as lipoprotein, C-reactive protein, and trimethylamine N-oxide. Coronary calcium scans, ultrasounds, and electrocardiograms are other options that test for arterial buildup. Also, doctors may test for other genetic diseases that could increase your chance of heart problems.
Depending on the test results, and the level of family history, your doctor may suggest forming an aggressive plan to reducing your risk of developing heart disease.
Consider other risk factors
While family history is a premier risk factor, other lifestyle choices contribute greatly. In fact, by changing certain behaviors and adopting a heart-healthy lifestyle, you can lower your risk of heart disease.
- Quit smoking: Encourage family members to quit smoking, too. Second-hand smoke is
as deadly as smoking yourself. Here are tips on quitting smoking and vaping.
- Exercise: Research shows that exercising for at least 150 minutes a week at moderate
intensity can lower cholesterol, blood pressure, and keep your weight at a healthy level.
- Find a healthy weight: Obesity places you at risk for high cholesterol, high blood
pressure, and insulin resistance, which is a precursor of type 2 diabetes. Work with a
nutritionist to make a target weight and exercise and diet plan to reach your goals.
Here are five tips to meeting your weight goals.
- Reduce stress: Studies have shown there’s a relationship between high stress levels
and coronary heart disease. Practice meditation, breathing techniques, and following a
regular sleep schedule as calming mechanisms.
- Eat a heart-healthy diet: Eating certain foods has been linked to lower cholesterol and
blood pressure, reduced inflammation, and less plaque in the arteries. Stick to nutrient-
rich foods, such as berries, vegetables, foods high in Omega-3 fatty acids, and whole
grains. Following a heart-healthy diet plan can help you stay on track.