Family history plays a major role in heart health

If you exercise, eat right and don’t smoke, a history of heart disease in your family can still put you at risk — even if you are a female.

Sherron Simmons lived her life as the picture of good health: she exercised regularly, ate healthy and did not smoke. That is why it was a shock for her to learn in 2007 that the main left artery to her heart was 90 percent blocked.

“I knew heart disease ran in my family, but I thought my chances of getting heart disease were very slim; especially since I was never overweight and knew I was doing things to prevent it,” Simmons explained.

University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Department of Epidemiology Professor and Chair Donna Arnett, Ph.D., says family history is one of the strongest predictors of heart disease.

“If you look at how heart disease occurs, about 80 percent takes place in people with a strong family history,” said Arnett, past-president of the American Heart Association (AHA).

Simmons is such a case. Three years after her first brush with heart disease, she would go on to suffer two heart attacks and need a heart transplant. After Simmons waited on the list for eight months, UAB cardiothoracic surgeon James Kirklin, M.D., performed her heart transplant on May 22, 2011.

“I’ve learned a lot, and now I know you need to check on your good and bad cholesterol levels and exercise,” Simmons said.

AHA's Life's Simple Seven:
  • Getting active
  • Controlling cholesterol
  • Eating better
  • Managing blood pressure
  • Losing weight
  • Quitting smoking
  • Reducing blood sugar

Arnett said this message goes hand in hand with following the AHA’s “Life’s Simple 7”: getting active, controlling cholesterol, eating better, managing blood pressure, losing weight, reducing blood sugar and quitting smoking.

“Though we know those seven major factors, we still don’t completely know all of the causes of heart disease,” Arnett said. “But with a family history, even in the absence of those risk factors, heart disease is still possible. It’s important to know family history.”

Arnett added that for people who are adopted or have no way of knowing their family’s history of heart health, it becomes even more important they monitor their numbers by visiting a doctor and having necessary screenings.

Arnett added that heart disease is the number-one killer of women.

“It’s not a man’s disease or woman’s disease; it’s a person’s disease,” Arnett said. “The signs of a heart attack can be different than typical chest pain in the center of your chest. If you’re experiencing something that makes you feel ‘off,’ whether it be extreme fatigue, shortness of breath or pain in the upper body, back or neck, go and have it checked out.”

“Life is a gift, and we need to take care of ourselves,” Simmons said. “I’ve been given a second chance. We are all given second chances each day we’re alive, and we need to act on that.”