When it comes to heart disease, is the adage “like father like son” true? For many sons, as well as daughters, the answer is yes. But even if you have close relatives who died of a heart attack at an early age, you don’t have to resign yourself to a similar fate.
Often hereditary risk is transmitted through modifiable problems such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol. Once you identify these factors, you can begin working on them to decrease the impact of your heredity.
Most people who develop significant heart disease early—before age 55 in a man and age 65 in a woman—have inherited genes that predispose them to abnormalities in blood lipid levels. For example, they might have too much LDL (“bad” cholesterol) and too little HDL (“good” cholesterol), leading to the accelerated development of atherosclerosis and—if it’s not treated—an early heart attack.
Some individuals have one of a range of disorders called familial hyperlipidemias. These can cause severe atherosclerosis leading to a heart attack at an extremely early age (sometimes before age 40).
But most people with hereditary risk don’t have a full-blown disorder—just a tendency to lipid abnormalities. These lipid abnormalities often are accompanied by a tendency toward obesity, high blood sugar and high blood pressure. In some families the inherited tendency toward heart disease includes all of these factors. That’s why it’s important that anyone with a family history of early heart disease not only have their lipid profile determined, but have other risk factors assessed as well.
Even if your family has a history of early heart disease, there are steps you can take to reduce the likelihood that you’ll be affected. Risk factors such as cigarette smoking, high LDL cholesterol, high blood pressure and physical inactivity all can be controlled. A good first step: Talk to your healthcare provider. He or she will be able to evaluate your risk factors and tell you what you can do to minimize them.
Remember, although you can’t change your family history, you can change your lifestyle. And, when it comes to heart disease, that can make all the difference.