A young 30-something in one of my Heart-Smart Women presentation audiences asked an intriguing question while we were discussing cardiac risk factors. She was especially worried about her own personal risk for developing heart disease one day because of her family history. Her mother had died several years earlier from a heart attack while only in her 40s. But then this young woman added a few additional facts about her Mum. For example, her mother had also:
- weighed over 300 pounds
- rarely if ever engaged in physical exercise
- lived with poorly controlled Type 2 diabetes
- been a heavy smoker for over two decades
This young woman, however, shared none of those risk factors. So what do you think? Should she be concerned about this family history of heart disease after all? The World Heart Federation helps to answer this question by reminding us:
“You can protect yourself by taking care of your heart, as the development of cardiovascular disease involves many different risk factors, not just your family history.
“We know that people often behave and act as their parents and siblings do. As a result, the genes and habits that cause us to be sedentary, to smoke, to be overweight/obese, or to follow poor diets often tend to cluster in families.”
But it’s important to remember that not everybody who has a strong family history will develop cardiovascular disease, and not everybody with cardiovascular disease has a family history at all. Mayo Clinic cardiologists add:
“A family history of heart disease – including heart attack, valve or heart rhythm conditions – can increase your own risk, especially if a parent or sibling developed it at an early age (before age 55 for a male relative such as your brother or father, and before age 65 for a female relative such as your mother or sister).”
And if both parents have suffered from heart disease before the age of 55, your risk of developing heart disease can rise significantly compared to the general population.
But as I like to remind my audiences, even a strong family history is NOT necessarily a death sentence.
A stroke is also a type of cardiovascular disease (affecting blood flow to the brain instead of to the heart). Canada’s Heart and Stroke Foundation warns that you may be at higher stroke risk if a close family member (parent, sibling or child) had a stroke before age 65 – and particularly if you are a woman and your mother has suffered a stroke.
Some heart rhythm disorders can also run in families. Alicia Burns, who blogs at Brugada Girl, experienced distressing cardiac symptoms for 14 years that were misdiagnosed or dismissed entirely before being correctly diagnosed with Brugada Syndrome. Her father had died suddenly of cardiac arrest at age 55 (now believed to have been caused by Brugada) and the whole family knew that her paternal grandmother had always lived with fainting spells, yet it was only after Alicia’s diagnosis at age 34 that her father and grandmother’s experiences began to make sense.
You should be screened by a cardiologist (or an electrophysiologist who specializes in heart rhythm issues) if any first degree relative has experienced:
- Arrhythmogenic Right Ventricular Cardiomyopathy (ARVC)
- Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) Although it is not very common, HCM can lead to the development of abnormal heart rhythms which can then lead to sudden death in some people.
- Long QT syndrome
- Wolff-Parkinson-White (WPW) Syndrome
- Brugada syndrome (BrS) BrS is a heart rhythm disorder that causes abnormal beats in the bottom chambers of the heart (ventricles). If left undiagnosed, BrS can cause fainting, irregular heartbeats, and/or sudden death.
- Catecholaminergic Polymorphic Ventricular Tachycardia (CPVT) CPVT is an abnormal heart rhythm characterized by fainting or cardiac arrest while engaging in physical activity or intense emotional stress. It commonly occurs in younger people.
- Short QT intervals (SQT) SQT is characterized by an abnormal heart rhythm where the heart muscle takes a shorter time to recharge between beats. It can cause a variety of complications from fainting and dizziness to sudden cardiac arrest.
And if you have a family history of any of these conditions, make sure every adult in your family learns how to do CPR.
Some heart valve disorders can also be inherited. A study in Denmark reported that the risk of aortic stenosis (one of the most common heart valve diseases in the elderly) doubles when a first degree relative also had the disease. This study also found that aortic stenosis risk increased by eight-fold in patients who have both heart disease and a family history. (2)