Knowing how your family history affects your heart health can increase your chance of seeing future generations grow healthy
Understanding family history is a powerful tool for both physician and patient in promoting heart health. It provides insight that is critical to identifying and preventing heart disease. When addressed proactively, a patient’s family history can become one of the best motivators in promoting healthy behaviors. Conversely, we sensitively consider the lack of family history or the lack of family itself in order to provide the best care possible.
A patient’s family history reflects his or her genetic susceptibility to a range of cardiovascular conditions such as premature coronary artery disease and stroke. On top of that, families share environments, eating patterns, and frequently adopt similar behaviors.
Inherited risk factors for heart disease come in two forms. Some, like cardiomyopothy (thickened or weakened heart muscle), valve problems, or aortic aneurysms, are “silent” until an acute problem manifests. Or someone may have symptoms of an underlying condition and not realize it. People who have experienced the sudden, early death of a close relative – particularly a parent or sibling – should be proactive in being screened.
How a patient reacts to their family history can also impact their heart health.
Some become crippled by anxiety, convinced that the heart attack that killed a parent will strike them at the same age. Or they may feel falsely reassured by the fact that grandmother lived to be 100 although she smoked like a chimney. Others respond with denial: Dad was diabetic because he was overweight, but I work out.
A thorough family history coupled with a careful clinical examination and noninvasive tests like EKGs or echocardiograms can help identify abnormalities and set people on the path to avoiding future problems. For example, sons of mothers with coronary artery disease tend to develop heart problems 10 years sooner than daughters. If a condition is identified early on, we can determine whether it is benign – that is, it poses no risk – or how we can reduce risk. For many people, quitting smoking, reducing salt intake, regular physical activity, or losing weight can be enormously helpful in protecting their health despite the presence of such conditions.
Risk of developing hypertension or high cholesterol are also inherited. A non-smoker with a healthy diet and active lifestyle may unknowingly develop high cholesterol or high blood pressure at an early age. With early detection and appropriate management, problems later in life can be averted.
If there’s an inherited disorder, knowledge is powerful. Education about heart health, especially for young people, needs to be sustaining and consistent. It requires reminders and feedback, empowerment and motivation. The most important asset we all share is a desire to live longer and healthier.
Understanding our family history can be a powerful motivator to choose a heart healthy lifestyle.
Fortunately, healthy behaviors can also be modeled and adopted by those around us. Many people find it easier to change their own behaviors when they realize that it will benefit their children, and spouses are often willing to change the habits of a lifetime when they realize it will enhance the life of the person they love.