Your Heart Health: What Family History Tells You

Image for family history article It is good that you are actively thinking about what steps you can take to prevent history from repeating itself. Although cardiovascular disease (CVD)—the number one killer and a leading cause of premature, permanent disability in the US—may be more common in families with a positive family history of CVD, the outlook is far from hopeless. Scientists have established that several risk factors—both modifiable (such as diet, physical activity level, and tobacco use) and nonmodifiable (such as age and genetics)—play a role in the development of CVD. Moreover, scientists are not even sure if the increased risk of developing CVD in someone with a family history of the disease is solely a result of a shared genetic predisposition or if it simply represents a greater exposure to the same harmful environmental influences.

Genetics and Cardiovascular Risk

The Human Genome Project was completed in 2003. The project was a scientific undertaking to identify all the genes in human DNA. It was done to assess specific genes to determine individual disease risk. Examples of genetic influences on cardiovascular risk that researchers studied included the following:
  • Genes that appear to predispose a person to congenital heart disease (defects present at birth)
  • Apolipoproteins B and E, which are proteins that combine with a lipid that affect blood cholesterol concentrations
  • The angiotensinogen gene variant, an alteration in the hormone angiotensinogen, which is associated with high blood pressure
  • Homocysteine, an amino acid which contributes to atherosclerosis by irritating vascular endothelial cells lining the blood vessels
  • C-reactive protein, a protein that is a marker of inflammation and may predict future cardiovascular risk
However, while genetic and protein markers may identify enhanced CVD risk (and would allow for targeted prevention) further confirmation is required before widespread clinical use is indicated. What is known is that CVD occurs more commonly in families with a positive family history of the condition. This means that your risk of CVD is increased if any of your immediate relatives, such as siblings, parents, or children, have or had heart disease, a heart attack, or stroke, especially before age 50.

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