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Is heart disease a family affair?
How your genes can put you at risk

How you can fight the effects of heredity
How you can fight the effects of heredity

Family history isn’t destiny when it comes to heart disease. No matter how many close relatives died of a heart attack, there are many steps you can take to lower your own risk. Here are seven:

  • Get regular medical checkups and be aware of your current blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
  • If you smoke cigarettes, quit now.
  • Cut down the amount of saturated fat in your diet.
  • Cut down on cholesterol-laden food.
  • If you’re overweight, lose weight.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Learn to manage stress and stressful emotions, such as anger.

Note: The importance of each of these tips will depend on your medical history. Consult your healthcare provider to find out which changes are most important for you to make.

You have an edge over your ancestors
You have an edge over your ancestors

You say your father, grandfather and great aunt all died of heart disease by age 65? Then there’s a good chance it runs in your family. But there’s also a good chance that your ancestors might have survived had today’s medical knowledge and technology been available to them.

A few decades ago, a fatal heart attack often was the first sign of heart disease. Today, diagnostic tests such as exercise stress testing and angiography allow doctors to detect and treat heart disease early.

Procedures such as coronary bypass surgery and angioplasty save thousands of lives every year. Medications now exist that can lower high cholesterol and high blood pressure levels. Also, people today benefit from what physicians have learned about how blood-lipid levels, cigarette smoking and exercise affect heart disease.

So even if heart disease runs in your family, today there are more ways than ever to fight it.

When it comes to heart disease, is the adage “like father like son” true? For many sons, as well as daughters, the answer is yes. But even if you have close relatives who died of a heart attack at an early age, you don’t have to resign yourself to a similar fate.

Often hereditary risk is transmitted through modifiable problems such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol. Once you identify these factors, you can begin working on them to decrease the impact of your heredity.

How your genes can put you at risk

Most people who develop significant heart disease early—before age 55 in a man and age 65 in a woman—have inherited genes that predispose them to abnormalities in blood lipid levels. For example, they might have too much LDL (“bad” cholesterol) and too little HDL (“good” cholesterol), leading to the accelerated development of atherosclerosis and—if it’s not treated—an early heart attack.

Some individuals have one of a range of disorders called familial hyperlipidemias. These can cause severe atherosclerosis leading to a heart attack at an extremely early age (sometimes before age 40).

But most people with hereditary risk don’t have a full-blown disorder—just a tendency to lipid abnormalities. These lipid abnormalities often are accompanied by a tendency toward obesity, high blood sugar and high blood pressure. In some families the inherited tendency toward heart disease includes all of these factors. That’s why it’s important that anyone with a family history of early heart disease not only have their lipid profile determined, but have other risk factors assessed as well.

Even if your family has a history of early heart disease, there are steps you can take to reduce the likelihood that you’ll be affected. Risk factors such as cigarette smoking, high LDL cholesterol, high blood pressure and physical inactivity all can be controlled. A good first step: Talk to your healthcare provider. He or she will be able to evaluate your risk factors and tell you what you can do to minimize them.

Remember, although you can’t change your family history, you can change your lifestyle. And, when it comes to heart disease, that can make all the difference.