This holiday season, talk about family health history to determine your risk for heart disease

The holiday season is a time when family members get together to share a meal; doctors recommend using this opportunity to learn more about one’s family history.
Written by: Tehreem Khan and UAB Medicine Marketing
Media contact: Anna Jones

Heart disease indicators in family treeGraphic: Jody PotterThe holiday season is a time when family and friends gather to share meals and enjoy time with each other. While many topics of conversation may come up at the dinner table, one conversation topic that experts from the University of Alabama at Birmingham Marnix E. Heersink School of Medicine say could be fruitful is a conversation about family history. 

Certain risk factors play a role in developing heart disease and oftentimes run in the family. According to Vera Bittner, M.D., professor in the UAB Department of Medicine and section head of the Division of Cardiovascular Disease, family history is one of the most important factors to consider while determining one’s risk of developing heart problems. 

“By looking at your health history family tree, you can learn which risk factors you may have inherited and use this information to make lifestyle choices for maintaining a healthier heart,” Bittner said. 

What is family history?

A family health history is a record of health information about a person and his or her relatives. A complete record includes information from three generations of relatives. One way to think of this health history is to imagine branches of a tree that represent parents, siblings, grandparents and great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. In many cases, if someone has a family history of a heart condition, their chances of getting a heart condition may be higher than normal.

“A family history of a particular health condition means that a relative has, or has had, that condition,” Bittner said. “By looking at patterns of conditions among relatives, doctors can learn whether you have an increased risk of developing a particular condition.”

Impact of family history on risk for heart disease

The most common type of heart disease is coronary heart disease, sometimes called coronary artery disease, in which plaque builds up in the artery. This plaque can be cholesterol, calcium, fat or other substances, causing chest pain. Plaque can also develop blood clots, leading to a heart attack. Important risk factors other than family history are high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking and diabetes. 

“Because heart disease can be passed down through generations, patients may wonder whether their grandfather’s serious heart condition indicates that they will have the same problem, for example,” Bittner said. “That patient may be more worried if a brother or sister has a heart condition or has suffered a cardiac event. It is important to remember that answers to these questions of family history do not offer a prediction; they only estimate your risk.”

The best indicator of inherited risk for heart disease is whether any first-degree relative such as a parent, brother or sister is diagnosed with heart disease. The estimated risk level considers whether someone’s parents or siblings had a heart problem or cardiac event before age 55. This might indicate that they are at greater risk for heart disease than someone who does not have that family history. The health history of second-degree relatives that include grandparents, aunts and uncles can also be useful in estimating heart disease risk.

Follow the family-tree branches

The easiest way to get information about family health history is to talk to relatives. 

“Ask them if they’ve had any heart problems or heart-related medical events, and when those events happened,” Bittner said. “A family gathering could be a good time to talk about it. Looking at medical records and other documents can help complete a family health history.”

Bittner notes that it is important for everyone to keep this information up to date and share it with their doctor. To better organize the data, Bittner recommends filling in a family tree chart on the American Heart Association website.

Changing the course of family history

While it is daunting to not be able to change the past, the good news is that the present is manageable, which may lead to a heart disease-free future. People who have family members with heart disease are more likely to develop heart disease, but it is important to note that they can lower this risk by reducing their other risk factors.

“Limiting your risk factors can also allow you to mitigate risks along future branches of your family tree,” Bittner said. 

Some risk factors can be changed, treated or modified through lifestyle changes and healthy habits, by following these simple recommendations:

  • Share detailed family history with one’s doctor to receive early detection, diagnosis or medication.
  • Follow a heart-healthy diet such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
  • Aim for at least 30 minutes of physical activity per day. Small amounts of movement add up.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Know and control blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
  • Manage stress by staying organized, getting enough sleep, taking time to socialize and learning to set healthy boundaries.
  • Quit smoking and limit alcohol consumption.