Feature Archive

Heart Health and Your Family History

Genetics play a big role in the health of your heart. What can you do to protect it -- today?

By Gina Shaw
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD

Most people know that cardiovascular disease can run in families -- that if you have a family history of heart disease, you may be at greater risk for heart attack, stroke, and other heart problems. But how much does family history affect your heart health? What parts of the family tree are most important? And what can you do about it?

Family History and Your Heart Health

Simply put, the closer the relative, the greater your heart disease risk. If you have a "first-degree relative" -- that's a mother, father, sister, or brother (or even a son or daughter) who had heart disease at an early age, that increases your risk of developing heart disease.

"The more family members you have, the higher the potential risk," says Roger Blumenthal, MD, director of the Johns Hopkins Ciccarone Center for the Prevention of Heart Disease. "More than one first-degree relative with early heart disease doubles your risk, even if you control for other factors."

So what's considered "an early age?" Generally, says Blumenthal, heart attacks, strokes, and documented cardiovascular disease in a man under 55, or a woman under 65, raise a red flag. The more family members you have, the higher the potential risks of heart disease.