How Your Family History Affects Your Heart Health

Mar 26, 2021


Alto Pharmacy

While you know that traits like the color of your eyes and hair, as well as maybe your love of coffee, have been passed down through your family, you might not realize the extent to which heredity can also influence aspects of your health. With heart disease being the leading cause of death in the United States, knowing your family’s health history and the extent of your risk is key to managing your heart health. Here’s how having heart disease in your family can affect your own heart’s health, what you can do, and everyday ways to keep your heart beating healthy. 

What is heart disease?

When people talk about heart disease, they’re usually referring to coronary heart disease (also referred to as coronary artery disease).This is the most common type of heart disease and leads to more than 370,000 deaths in the United States every year. 

Coronary heart disease results when plaque builds up on the walls of the arteries that lead to your heart. This buildup narrows the arteries, making it harder for blood to pass through, which can ultimately lead to a heart attack or stroke.

Common risk factors for heart disease include high LDL cholesterol, low HDL cholesterol (the “good” kind), stress, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, physical inactivity, smoking, being post-menopausal for women and being older than 45 for men.

Learning your family’s health history

According to the American Heart Association, your risk of heart disease is strongly linked to your family history. That means that if someone in your family has diabetes or high LDL cholesterol, for example, then you may be more prone to these heart disease risk factors as well. Similarly, if someone in your family has had a stroke, that makes you more likely to have one. 

To understand your genetic risk of heart disease, you need to first take a look at your family’s health history. You may not know the health history of your entire extended family and that’s okay. A key first step is to start learning the health history of your first-degree relatives: first your parents, then your siblings. Did either of your parents or siblings have a heart attack or stroke, or die from one, at an early age? If they did prior to age 55 for males or age 65 for females, then you’re at an increased risk of heart disease.

Additionally, there are other genetic factors to be aware of that can increase your risk of heart disease. Statistics from the American Heart Association show that African Americans are at a greater risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke; and about one in three Hispanics will have high blood pressure.

Your family’s home lifestyle and environment can also play a role in your heart health. Living in a household of smokers, for example, can increase your risk of heart disease, while a regular diet of fast food can trigger inflammation in your body and lead to an increased risk of high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes

Where you live can also be a factor. City and urban environments can expose you to more air pollution as well as poor water or food quality, which can all contribute to heart disease.

What to do once you know your family’s health history

Once you have some idea of your immediate family’s health picture and any history of heart disease or risk factors, you’ll next want to assess your own risk. There are various heart attack risk calculators that can help you do this. These take into account your genetics as well as current diet and lifestyle habits to predict your chance of having a heart attack.

Sharing your personal heart disease risk and family history with your doctor is important because it can allow them to come up with a plan to help you lower your risk. Your doctor may also suggest certain medical tests to provide a more accurate diagnosis. A blood test, for example, can look for certain biomarkers in your bloodstream, like LDL cholesterol, that increase your heart disease risk. A heart scan, also known as a coronary calcium scan, can detect any calcium on the walls of your arteries.

You’ll also want to make sure you’re aware of any early heart attack warning signs to watch out for. If you experience symptoms such as chest pain or discomfort, shortness of breath during daily activities, or pain or discomfort in your arms, back, neck, or jaw, you should call 911 to get proper care as soon as possible.

What you can do 

If you discover that you have an extensive family history of cardiovascular disease or you’ve calculated your risk to be higher than average, does that mean you will end up with cardiovascular disease yourself? Not necessarily. Here are some of the things you can do to help reduce your risk. 

Once you have the results of any blood tests, your doctor will factor these into your family history and lifestyle habits to come up with a strategy to help you manage any heart disease risk. They’ll also discuss with you any risks and benefits of taking certain cardiovascular medications, if necessary. 

Adopting a heart-healthy lifestyle will also be a key part of any heart disease management plan. This includes avoiding foods that are high in saturated fat, salt, and sugar, as well as adding more healthy foods to your diet like nuts, fruits, vegetables, beans and fish. You’ll also want to make sure you’re getting enough sleep, managing stress, and staying active. For physical activity, the Department of Health and Human Services recommends at least 30 minutes of heart-pumping exercise such as brisk walking or riding your bike at least five days a week.

If you have any other health conditions such as high blood pressure or diabetes, control these by staying on top of your regimen prescribed by your doctor. You’ll also want to be aware of the other factors you might not realize can influence your risk of heart disease.

While it’s essential to be your own advocate when it comes to your health, we’re here to support you with exceptional pharmacy care every step of the way. If you are prescribed medications for your heart, our pharmacists would be happy to walk you through dosage instructions and answer your questions. We’ll look for any available savings to help you get the lowest price, and we’ll deliver your medications to your home for free. Simply tell your doctor to send your new prescription to Alto or contact our team - we’ll take care of the transfer for you.

This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.