Here’s Why You Should Know Your Family History

Written by: Irene Euodia
Medically reviewed by: Robert Philibert MD PhD
 
During your doctor’s visit, you may be asked about your family history of potentially heritable conditions, current diagnoses, treatments, or procedures. It is essential to find out your family’s history to better understand your risk for coronary heart disease. “Both the risk of heart disease and risk factors for heart disease are strongly linked to family history,” said William Kraus, M.D., a preventive cardiologist and research scientist at Duke University. “If you have a stroke in your family, you are more likely to have one.” (American Heart Association)
 
Why Do You Need to Know Your Family History?

Family history, including inherited conditions of heart disease, elevates your risk of developing coronary heart disease-even if you do not have symptoms. Family history combines shared environments and shared genes passed down from one generation to the next. Shared environments are transmitted through learning. In contrast, inherited conditions are transmitted by passing down variation in one or more of the genes affecting heart function. Some common inherited disorders are cardiomyopathies (heart muscle diseases) and familial hypercholesterolemia (very high cholesterol levels). Some of these conditions show no symptoms until late in the course of illness and can only be diagnosed by laboratory examination.
 
How To Find Out If You Have a Family History of Heart Disease?

Start by asking your immediate family members if they have been diagnosed with heart or circulatory disease such as a heart attack or stroke and what age they were diagnosed. You can determine if you have a strong family history. If your father or brother was diagnosed before the age of 55 or if your mother or sister was diagnosed under 65, that suggests a strong family history.

However, a strong family history does not mean that you will get ill. Everyone has a varying amount of genetic risk. Instead, most family history is due to dietary habits that sort in families rather than genetics. As you pass through adolescence into independent adulthood, you tend to follow your family’s lifestyle, including nutritional preferences, smoking, exercising habits, and others. However, if your family had high risk lifestyle choices and you abandon them, you may markedly decrease your risk. That is why, just because your family member has a history of heart disease, it doesn’t mean that you will have the same condition. In fact, only around 15% of hypercholesterolemia is due to genetic variation (Hou et al., 2019). Similarly, only about 15-20% of the risk for coronary heart disease is secondary to genetic variation. Therefore, knowing your whole family history may be one way to raise awareness of your health profile to minimize the risks of developing coronary heart disease.
 
What To Do Next?

Regardless of your family history, it is undoubtedly essential to keep in mind that your risk of developing coronary heart disease is mainly affected by your lifestyle. Don’t forget to revisit your health profile to reduce your risk for coronary heart disease. Some ways you can reduce the chances of having a heart attack are:

 
In some cases, healthy lifestyle changes might not bring your cholesterol level down or solve your circulation problem. It is essential to consult with your health care provider if you have any symptoms such as chest pain, abnormal heart rhythm, shortness of breath, fatigue, or swelling in the abdomen or legs. Do not ignore the signs as they can get worse and cause fulminant heart disease- even sudden death.

Check out the CDC guidelines and stay updated with our blogs for tips to plan your transition to a healthier life!
 
References:

  1. Coronary Artery Disease: Family History, https://www.healthlinkbc.ca/health-topics/hw79788.
  2. Association between Coronary Heart Disease and Family History, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3631594/
  3. Does Heart Disease Run In Your Family? https://www.cdc.gov/genomics/disease/heart_disease.htm
  4. Family History of Heart and Circulatory Disease, https://www.bhf.org.uk/informationsupport/risk-factors/family-history.
  5. Family History and Heart Disease, Stroke, https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/consumer-healthcare/what-is-cardiovascular-disease/family-history-and-heart-disease-stroke
  6. Does a Family History of Heart Disease Increase Your Risks? https://www.ucihealth.org/blog/2017/02/family-history-heart-attacks
  7. All in the Family: 3 Common Inherited Heart Disease https://www.pennmedicine.org/updates/blogs/heart-and-vascular-blog/2019/january/inherited-heart-diseases.
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