Heart Health: Know Your Family History and Make Better Lifestyle Choices

Healthy Heart|Mar.12, 2018


Heart condition is an equal partner in the triad we now know as metabolic syndrome, which includes diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity. These three conditions are closely interlinked, and having even one increases the chances of developing the others as well. In particular, heart health can be severely compromised by diabetes.

How does your family history affect your health in this way? More than you might think.

Understand Your Risk

One of the advantages of understanding heart health conditions is that your genetic predisposition can be understood with the help of family history. If many members of a family suffer from a similar health condition, there is a good chance that they bear genes that increase the risk of their children also developing the same problems.

In India, immediate as well as extended families are quite large, to the delight of geneticists and genetic counsellors. Genetic counsellors can build inheritance charts and understand the pattern of a health condition across two or three generations. Using these patterns, together with a person's current diagnosis, it is possible to recommend preventive measures to safeguard health.

Heart Health and Heredity

So, how do you know if you have a familial or genetic tendency towards heart disease? Umbrella organisations such as the British Heart Foundation, the Indian Heart Association and the American Heart Association have defined certain criteria to evaluate family history.

If one's father or brother is diagnosed with cardiovascular disease when they are under 55 years of age, then a hereditary tendency towards heart disease is quite possible. Likewise, if one's mother or sister is diagnosed with heart disease or if arterial plaques are detected in them when they are 65 years old or younger, then a genetic predisposition towards heart disease may be at work. The occurrence of stroke in grandparents on both sides of the family can also indicate a genetic tendency towards heart disease.

Lifestyle factors alone, such as lack of exercise, smoking and diet, are insufficient to explain the high prevalence of heart problems amongst us. Genetic markers are being identified, and their association with the incidence of high levels of triglycerides and LDL-cholesterol (the 'bad' cholesterol) in blood is becoming better understood from these population-based studies.

Some people have a genetic tendency to produce high levels of lipoprotein-a, a protein that helps to form LDL-cholesterol. So, if any member of a family has high levels of this protein, chances are good that other blood relatives may also produce excess amounts of this protein and thus be at risk of heart disease.

We can also expect genetic diagnostic tests that will help us understand our personalized risk for cardiovascular disease to come out in the next five years.

Using Family History to One's Advantage

Your family history serves as a risk estimator tool. Understanding the family history of heart disease comes with incredible benefits. If the analysis of your family's cardiac health history suggests that your chances of developing heart disease are high, then you can begin by taking preventive measures early in life, say in your 30s.

Preventive care such as lifestyle changes, adopting a diverse diet that includes healthy amounts of protein and fibre, quitting smoking and engaging in exercise can help you minimise this risk. You can also opt for 6-monthly health checkups to keep tabs on how well your lifestyle changes are working. Frequent checkups can help you build a medication regimen, if required, before your heart health is severely compromised.

Heart disease is a mid-to-late-life phenomenon with both controllable and uncontrollable factors at work. Genetic inheritance cannot be changed. However, it is possible to take better care of your heart health if you know your family history.


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