Family History Among Risk Factors for Heart Attack
I’m very healthy but my mother died of a heart attack, am I at risk?
I’m sorry to hear about your Mom. More information is needed though (see below). We are all at risk of cardiac and vascular disease if we live long enough. Scientific studies have identified family history as a “risk factor” for heart attack, as well as diabetes and high blood pressure. Family (or genetic) history is something we can usually determine, but cause of death is sometimes difficult. If a close relative (grandparent, father, mother, brother, sister) has had a heart attack at an early age (less than 60 years old for a man, less than 65 years old for a woman), then your risk of having a heart attack may be increased. But “sudden death” presumed to be from a heart attack is not the same. Sudden death may be a risk for sudden death, but not heart attack. Also, many relatives are said to have had a “heart attack” as a cause of death when the real cause was a longstanding illness such as cancer, these do not add to your risk.
While your family history may put you at increased risk, as may your age (more risk with increasing age) or gender (females are less likely to have a heart attack before menopause, but they catch up afterwards), these factors cannot be modified. Knowing your risk may however make you suspect that a symptom might represent a cardiac problem.
Scientific research has been aimed at discovering risk factors that can be modified (thus decreasing the likelihood of heart attacks). We often hear about some of this research through the daily media, newspaper, or via magazine articles. There is general scientific agreement that you can increase your risk of heart attack if you:
- Don’t exercise
- Have high blood pressure
- Have high blood cholesterol or triglycerides
- Have diabetes or trouble handling sugar (“insulin resistance”)
- Are obese
If you can modify your behavior, you can reduce or eliminate your excess risk of a heart attack. Exercise and weight loss will help control high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high blood sugar and obesity, lowering the risk from each. Reduction of smoking however does not decrease cardiac risk (it will help the lungs though). You must totally cease smoking to get any benefit with respect to heart attack.
CAVEAT: How much of a risk is smoking? Although I have treated many heart attacks, even in teenagers and pregnant women, all of the younger women who had heart attacks smoked (though one “only smoked crack, not cigarettes”). Before the age of 39 no risk factor has more impact on chances of a heart attack than smoking.
Published On: July 05, 2006