How Does Family History Affect Your Risk of Heart Disease?


While you’ve probably heard that a family history of heart disease can affect your risk of developing it, you may not know why that’s the case. Depending on your family’s history and inherited conditions, you may face a higher risk of heart disease. Thankfully, you can always take medical and lifestyle measures to protect your heart and live a longer, healthier life. 

At the Modern Heart and Vascular Institute, we can examine your family’s risk of heart disease and inherited conditions to give you a better picture of your health. 

How Does Family History Affect Your Risk?

Depending on your genetics and family history, you may have an increased risk of heart disease. But just because your parents or extended family suffered from heart disease doesn’t mean you’re destined to have it. Therefore, you must keep track of your family’s health history and visit a cardiologist to determine whether you’re at increased risk and learn how to control your risk with lifestyle changes and/or medication.

According to The New England Journal of Medicine, there’s no single predictive gene for heart disease, but a family history alongside an unhealthy lifestyle is linked to an increased chance of cardiovascular events. In other words, genetic factors can be reduced by making efforts to live a healthy lifestyle. This study found that the American Heart Association’s (AHA) four healthy lifestyle factors had the greatest chance of reducing heart disease in those with a family history. 

The following four factors make all the difference:

  • No current smoking: If you currently smoke, the most effective way to instantly decrease your risk of heart disease is to quit. Within just minutes of quitting, your heart rate will drop down to a normal rate. Creating a home environment absent from secondhand smoke is also essential for keeping your spouse, children and extended relatives safe from developing heart disease.
  • No obesity: By keeping your body mass index lower than 30%, you can decrease your risk of developing heart disease and health conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure.
  • Weekly physical activity: When you exercise at least weekly, your heart health and blood oxygen levels will continue to improve. As you begin exercising more frequently, your heart muscle becomes stronger and pumps blood more efficiently to protect you against heart disease. 
  • Healthy diet: Overall, a healthy diet is the most effective way to protect your cardiovascular system. That’s because fatty foods can lead to plaque buildup inside your arteries and prevent your heart from circulating your blood effectively. The AHA recommends a diet high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and nuts and low in meats, refined grains, sugary beverages, salt and trans fats. 

Alongside a family history of stroke, racial factors may increase your risk of developing heart disease. For instance, African American adults are more likely to have high blood pressure as opposed to non-Hispanic caucasian adults. It’s worth asking your doctor whether racial factors play a role in your specific risk level.

The Difference Between Family History and Inherited Conditions

While a family history of heart disease depends on lifestyle and cultural factors, inherited conditions are immutable and caused by mutations in one or more genes. Because your genetics are distributed half from each parent to child, there’s a 50% chance you’ll receive an inherited condition from a parent who has one. Because some inherited disorders are caused by recessive genes, there’s always a possibility you can pass a certain gene onto your child while exhibiting no symptoms of a heart condition.

If you meet any of the following criteria, you should be tested for inherited conditions: 

  • The presence of angina or heart attack from a young age
  • A history of cardiac arrest or stroke within your family
  • A family member who died from sudden arrhythmic death syndrome (SADS)

The three most common types of inherited heart conditions are cardiomyopathies, channelopathies and familial hypercholesterolemia (FH). The former affects the formation of the heart and may lead to weaknesses or thickening in the wall of the heart. Comparatively, channelopathies — such as long QT syndrome, Brugada syndrome and progressive cardiac conduction defect (PCCD) — impact the heart’s ability to beat regularly. FH is also known as high blood cholesterol.

How Genetic Screening Can Help Determine Your Risk

The field of genetic testing is rapidly improving, and you can undergo a blood test to determine the mutation in your DNA that’s responsible for your inherited heart condition. Note that the current yield of genetic testing for inherited heart disease remains less than 100%. Therefore, it’s crucial to speak with your doctor to see if genetic screening is the correct step. It’s recommended that genetic counseling precede genetic testing so the patient understands the full scope of their genetics.

Alternatively, nongenetic testing such as echocardiograms and stress tests can be used to confirm the presence of inherited conditions. These tests allow your cardiologist to examine the shape of your heart and its efficiency at pumping blood. Other diagnostic tests may include electrocardiograms, doppler ultrasoundscardiac CT scansnuclear cardiac stress tests and more.

How to Lower Your Risk

Regardless of your family history of high blood pressure or another heart disease factor, all it takes to lower your risk of developing heart disease is a focus on the AHA’s four main heart health indicators. These healthy changes have an immediate impact on your body and can decrease your risk in a matter of months. Lowering your risk of heart disease requires you to focus on the following actions:

  • Stop smoking: Quitting smoking has an immediate positive impact on your body’s blood oxygen levels.
  • Eat a healthy diet: Focus on eating a healthy diet rich in whole foods like fruits, vegetables and nuts while lowering consumption of processed foods that include high levels of sugar and fat. Decrease your chance of developing heart disease by deciding to eat a more plant-based diet.
  • Exercise regularly: Becoming more physically active by participating in regular moderate exercise is essential to strengthening your heart’s ability to pump blood. Starting slowly is essential to building stamina and preventing injury if you’ve been leading a relatively sedentary lifestyle. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity every week, or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity every week. Pair aerobic activity with muscle-strengthening activities to prevent injury and build strength. 
  • Lose weight: Healthy weight loss is about more than just exercise and diet — it requires a lifestyle change where your healthy choices and exercise become a routine. Those with high body mass indexes (BMIs) might be a candidate for weight loss surgery, which is something to discuss with your doctor if you believe it could improve your heart health.

Take Care of Your Heart With the Modern Heart and Vascular Institute

If you have a family history of cardiovascular disease, we recommend scheduling an appointment at a Modern Heart and Vascular location. At the Modern Heart and Vascular Institute, we help our patients navigate their heart disease risk and minimize it through a combination of medicine and lifestyle changes. 

Contact us online today to learn more about your heart disease risk and schedule an appointment with a cardiologist.

This article does not provide medical advice. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you need cardiovascular care, please call us at 832-644-8930.

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