The holiday season is a time when family members gather to share a meal; doctors recommend using this opportunity to learn more about your family history.
Written by: Tehreem Khan and UAB Medicine Marketing
Media Contact: Anna Jones
The holiday season is a time when family and friends gather to share food and have fun with one another. Although many topics of conversation can arise at the dinner table, one topic of conversation that experts at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Marnix E. Heersink School of Medicine say can be fruitful is talking about family history.
Certain risk factors play a role in the development of heart disease and often run in families. According to Dr. Vera Bittner, professor in the UAB Department of Medicine and chief of the Division of Cardiovascular Disease, family history is one of the most important factors to consider when determining your risk of developing heart problems.
“By looking at your health family tree, you can learn which risk factors you may have inherited and use that information to make lifestyle choices to support a healthier heart,” Bittner said.
What is family history?
A family health history is a record of health information about an individual and their relatives. The complete record includes information from three generations of relatives. One way to think about 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 heart disease, their chances of developing heart disease may be higher than normal.
“A family history of a particular health condition means that a relative has or 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.”
Influence of family history on heart disease risk
The most common type of heart disease is ischemic 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 that cause chest pain. Plaque can also form 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 if their grandfather’s serious heart disease indicates that they will have the same problem, for example,” Bittner said. “This patient may be more concerned if a sibling has heart disease or has had heart disease. It is important to remember that the answers to these family history questions do not offer a prognosis; they only assess your risk.
The best indicator of hereditary heart disease risk is whether a first-degree relative, such as a parent, sibling, or sibling, has been diagnosed with heart disease. The calculated risk level takes into account whether one’s parents or siblings had a heart problem or cardiac event before age 55. This may mean that they are at greater risk of heart disease than someone who does not have such a family history. The health history of second-degree relatives, including grandparents, aunts, and uncles, can also be helpful in assessing heart disease risk.
Follow the branches of the family tree
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 problems and when those events occurred,” Bittner said. “A family gathering might be a good time to talk about it. Reviewing medical records and other documents can help fill out a family’s health history.
Bittner notes that it’s important for everyone to keep this information current and share it with their doctor. To better organize the data, Bittner recommends completing a family tree chart on the American Heart Association’s website.
Changing the course of family history
While it’s daunting not being able to change the past, the good news is that the present is manageable, which can 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 reduce this risk by reducing 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 a detailed family history with your doctor to get 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 a day. Small amounts of movement are added.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Know and control your blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
- Manage stress by staying organized, getting enough sleep, making time to socialize, and learning to set healthy boundaries.
- Quit smoking and limit alcohol consumption.