Family history is an important factor in determining your risk for heart disease.
A cardiac event or diagnosed heart disease among your parents and grandparents, before age 55 for men or before age 65 for women, is a warning sign that you may be at risk.
A family history of heart disease does not necessarily mean you’ll have a heart attack or stroke. But knowing your family’s history will help you and your doctor assess your own risk and prompt preventive steps you can take to reduce your risk.
Heart disease occurs when fatty deposits called plaque accumulate in arteries within the heart. Plaques can begin to form in childhood, and in most cases remain there for the rest of a person’s life, so when other risk factors are present, those plaques pose a greater threat.
The more risk factors a person has the greater their risk for heart disease. Family history isn’t always as clear cut because parents don’t always pass along genes responsible for heart disease to their children, so doctors consider risk factors together when assessing heart health.
Monitoring the Big 5 Risk Factors
Family history: It’s never too early to discuss your family medical history with your doctor. The more you can find out about if and at what age your parents or grandparents suffered heart attack or stroke, the better your doctor can assess your risk and help you reduce them.
A family history of heart disease also means other risk factors take on greater significance. Your doctor may suggest closely monitoring and carefully managing cholesterol levels, blood pressure, diabetes, and quitting smoking.
Cholesterol: For those with low risk of heart disease, cholesterol levels should be tested every five years beginning at age 20, but more often for those with one or more risk factors present. Elevated levels of low-density lipoprotein, known as LDL or “bad” cholesterol, is a leading culprit in heart disease and can cause heart attacks and stroke. A healthy LDL level is 100 mg/dl or less.
Blood pressure: Healthy blood pressure is important even during childhood because the long-term effects of high blood pressure increase the risk of heart disease. If your blood pressure is greater than 120 over 80, your doctor may recommend changes in diet, exercise or taking medication to lower it.
Diabetes: Diabetes and associated elevated blood sugar are often associated with being overweight, consuming a diet high in simple sugars, lack of physical activity, stress and genetics. Doctors monitor blood sugar through routine blood tests, and will often recommend lifestyle changes or medication among patients with elevated levels.
Smoking: The risk of heart disease is higher among smokers. If you have a family history of heart disease you should avoid smoking or seek assistance from your doctor to help you quit.
Talk to your provider if you have questions or concerns about your risk of heart disease.