One step you can take in helping to prevent heart disease is knowing your family history of heart disease and the role family history plays in heart disease risk. It’s one way of taking charge of your own heart health as well as the health of your loved ones.
“It’s imperative to learn the warning signs and symptoms of heart disease and stroke, see a doctor regularly, and learn as much as possible about your family history,” says cardiologist Parin Parikh, M.D., FACC, of Presbyterian Heart & Vascular Group, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice. “We believe genetic factors play some role in high blood pressure, heart disease, and other related conditions. If there is a history, we can get more aggressive with our prevention measures, control and management of the disease.”
While you can’t change things like age and family history, you can know some critical numbers in your life and of your family members to better arm yourself against heart disease. In fact, simply by knowing your family history of the disease — especially in grandparents, parents and siblings — Parikh says you may be able to reduce your risk anywhere from 15 to 30 percent.
“Many people are more familiar with whether someone in their family has had a heart attack or has smoked than they are about the occurrence of stroke or congestive heart failure. But it all adds up to an increased risk, so knowledge is powerful. You can’t manage what you don’t measure, which is why knowing your risk is critical to preventing heart disease. Know your family and then know your numbers,” Parikh adds.
The Important Numbers to Know
Total Cholesterol and HDL Cholesterol
Cholesterol is a waxy substance your body needs to build cells. But too much cholesterol can pose a problem. As the amount of cholesterol in your blood increases, so does the risk to your heart health. Too much bad cholesterol (LDL) or not enough good cholesterol (HDL) increases the risk that cholesterol will slowly build up in the inner walls of the arteries that feed the heart. If a blood clot forms and blocks one of these narrowed arteries, a heart attack or stroke can result.
Familial hypercholesterolemia (FH) is a condition that runs in the family where people have very high LDL cholesterol levels in their blood — above 190 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL).
“Everyone’s cholesterol levels tend to rise with age, but people with FH are basically born with high cholesterol,” Parikh explains. “As time passes, it gets worse.”
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that all adults 20 or older at average risk have their cholesterol checked every four to six years, more often if there’s a history of FH or other risk factors in the family. A simple blood test can shed light on cholesterol levels and allow you and your healthcare provider to make informed decisions about your health.
High blood pressure, or hypertension, is considered a silent killer because it can creep up without any warning signs. The risk of developing high blood pressure goes up if you are 20 pounds or more overweight or if you have a family history of the condition. The risk is also higher for women who have reached menopause.
The ideal numbers to shoot for when having your blood pressure checked are 120/80 mm Hg. Your healthcare provider should measure your blood pressure at least once every two years if you have never had high blood pressure or other risk factors for heart disease. If you have been diagnosed with high blood pressure, it should be checked more regularly.
Blood sugar is often measured for diabetes, a condition that increases a person’s risk for heart disease. According to the AHA, adults with diabetes are two to four times more likely to die from heart disease than adults without diabetes. Why?
“People with diabetes often also have high blood pressure and abnormal cholesterol levels,” according to Parikh. “If you have a history of diabetes or pre-diabetes in your family, you may be at increased risk for heart disease.”
In general, a fasting blood sugar number less than 100 mg/dl is considered ideal. A number higher than 125 mg/dl may suggest the presence of diabetes.
Body Mass Index (BMI)
Your body mass index is a way of measuring how healthy your body weight is in relation to your height. A BMI of 30 is generally considered to be in the range of obesity, a risk factor for heart disease. Losing as few as 10 pounds can go a long way in lowering this risk. You can determine if your weight is in a healthy range by visiting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Assessing Your Weight website or speaking with your healthcare provider.
Be Relentless, Be Informed
Your family health history is a record of the diseases and health conditions present in your family. Your family health history can be a useful tool for understanding health risks and preventing disease because it can show you a picture of your “family tree” and the health disorders that may have moved from one generation to the next.
To help you collect and organize your family history information, download a heart health family tree to print, fill out and share with your healthcare provider. This can be a powerful tool for you and your physician to have when predicting conditions you may be at risk for, especially heart disease.
“The specifics of family members with congestive heart failure, heart attack, and other heart conditions, plus the age of onset, are good to share with your physician,” Parikh says. “This information can help us better define when heart problems began in your health history and plan a course for your better heart health.”