Heart disease in your family? Knowing the answer could save your life

June 05, 2023 | by Edward-Elmhurst Health
Categories: Healthy Driven Hearts

Family trees are increasingly popular thanks to the availability of online genealogy sites. It can be fun to picture earlier generations, where we came from and how we ended up living where we are today.

Sometimes people forget to trace one of the most critical parts of their story: their family health history. This knowledge can help you gauge your risk of heart disease and other conditions, and give you a chance to do something about those risks.

Among the more common heart disorders that are sometimes inherited are heart rhythm problems (arrhythmias), diseases of the heart muscle (cardiomyopathy), high blood cholesterol and coronary artery disease.

If you want to see if your family history puts you at greater risk of heart trouble, start some sleuthing close to home. Ask your blood relatives about any cardiovascular conditions they have, and at what age they developed them. Try to determine the cause and age of death of deceased relatives, too.

“One important thing to find out is whether you have first-degree relatives who either developed heart disease before age 55, or died at an early age of sudden cardiac arrest. This background can increase risk as much as having high cholesterol or diabetes,” says Cash Casey, M.D., an independent cardiac electrophysiologist and member of the Elmhurst Hospital medical staff.

First-degree family members include parents, siblings or offspring. Dr. Casey suggests not stopping there. Your detective work should also include cousins, aunts and uncles, and grandparents, whenever possible.

You may not always learn the official cause of death, but sometimes stories of unusual occurrences provide clues.

“If we learn that a family member at a relatively young age just collapsed and died, inexplicably drowned, or just didn’t wake up one morning, it’s usually a sudden cardiac arrest caused by a genetic condition,” says Dr. Casey. “When we can determine the genetic problem that caused these incidents, the family members can be tested for that specific genetic variation. With early diagnosis, many of these problems can be treated with medications or implantable devices.”

Race and ethnicity are other genetic factors affecting cardiac risk. According to the Centers for Disease Control, heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. for non-Hispanic whites, non-Hispanic blacks and Native Americans. For Hispanics, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, heart disease is the second leading cause of death, after cancer.

For insight into your risk of cardiovascular disease, it only takes a few minutes to complete Edward-Elmhurst Health’s free HeartAware assessment.

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10 ways to keep your family heart healthy

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