Can you lower your risk if you have a family history of heart disease?
If your parents and grandparents had heart disease, you might assume that family history means you’re destined for the same diagnosis. Although your genes do play a role in your risk of developing heart disease, there are steps you can take to lower your risk. The first step is to talk with your primary care physician to put together a plan that addresses the particular risk factors you face. Starting your prevention efforts in your 20s can help you build the heart healthy habits that can decrease your risk of developing heart disease, but even if you’re older, there are several lifestyle changes you can make to lower your risk.
Proactive steps to lower your risk of heart disease
- Know your family history: Only about a third of Americans know their family’s health history. To build a prevention plan that takes into consideration your specific heart disease risk factors, you need to know that history. Find out if:
- Your mother or sister was diagnosed with heart or vascular disease before age 65 and if your father or brother was diagnosed with either of these conditions before age 55
- If your mother or sister had a heart attack before age 55 or if your father or brother had a heart attack before age 45
- Your parents or siblings have been diagnosed with high blood pressure or high cholesterol
- Your parents or siblings have had a stroke
- Your parents or siblings have had angioplasty or any other interventional cardiology procedure or have had heart bypass surgery
- Your parents or siblings have been diagnosed with a heart rhythm disorder
- Get screened: If you have a family history of heart disease, ask your doctor when you should begin regular blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol screening. Many doctors recommend people at higher risk start these annual screenings at 18 so that if the numbers increase, treatment and lifestyle changes can be started sooner rather than later.
- Make healthier lifestyle choices: A study that included more than 55,000 people found that for people at an increased genetic risk for heart disease, four lifestyle choices could significantly decrease the risk. Those choices included:
- Not smoking
- Maintaining a body mass index (BMI) of less than 30
- Exercising at least once a week
- Eating a diet that included more fruits, nuts, vegetables, whole grains, fish, and dairy products and a reduced amount of refined grains, processed meats, unprocessed red meats, sugar-sweetened beverages, trans fats, and sodium
For people at the highest genetic risk of developing heart disease, following these behaviors decreased risk by 46%. For those at intermediate risk, the decrease was 47%. People at low risk decreased their risk 45%.
- Be aware of the symptoms of heart disease. While the early stages of heart disease often have no symptoms, there are symptoms that could mean that you have a problem with your heart. Tell your doctor if you have:
- Chest pain or shortness of breath while walking, climbing stairs, or exercising
- Palpitations (irregular heartbeats)
- Faster or slower than normal heartbeat
- Pain, numbness, or coldness in your legs or arms, which could mean the blood vessels are narrowed
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Swelling in the legs, ankles, feet, or abdomen