Know Your Family Heart Health Tree

Health Professional
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Having a family history of heart attack or stroke may increase your risk for the same health problems. Try to find out about your family history so you can take steps to avoid both heart disease and stroke.

Start with your immediate family

Share with your doctor the health history of your siblings, parents, and grandparents. Did any of your immediate family have a stroke or heart attack? How old where they?

If you are able, go one step further and learn the health history for your aunts and uncles.

The American Heart Association provides a My Family Health Tree to help you map out the health conditions in your family.

Overcome the odds

I have a very poor heart health tree myself. A grandmother who suffered several heart attacks before a fatal heart attack at the age of 69. An aunt who also dealt with diabetes and heart issues leading to a fatal heart attack at age 62. A grandfather who lived with diabetes which led to heart disease and eventual death after bypass surgery. And the list goes on as I work down to my parents.

This does not mean I accept heart disease is in my future. No way. This just means I don’t have the luxury of coasting along assuming my health will be fine if I do nothing special to protect it.

I must be diligent about making healthy choices 90 percent of the time. If I were to choose to live an unhealthy lifestyle (fast food, soda, inactivity, high fat meals, etc.), I’m pretty much sealing my fate to have heart disease at some point. Instead, I ensure my diet is heart healthy and my activity level high.

I had a cholesterol level over 200 way back in my 20’s, but successfully lowered it to normal and have maintained healthy low levels ever since. Same for a healthy blood pressure well below the goal of 120/80 mm Hg. So, my risk for heart disease is fairly low at this point regardless of my family history.

If your family history places you are higher risk for heart attack and stroke, you also can take steps to lower your risk.

There are heart disease risk factors you can change and ones you cannot.

Risk factors you cannot control:

  • Increasing age - The majority of the people who die from heart disease are over 65 years-old.

  • Gender - Men have a greater risk of dying from heart disease (heart attack) than women.

  • Family History - If close blood relatives have/had heart disease, your risk is greater.

  • Ethnicity - African Americans have an increased risk over Caucasians. This is related to high blood pressure being more prevalent in African Americans. Also, Mexican Americans and Native Americans tend to be more susceptible to heart disease.

If you have any one or more of the risk factors you cannot change, it is that much more important to focus on the ones you can.

Risk factors you can change:

  • Smoking - You have double to quadruple the risk of developing heart disease if you smoke. If you are a nonsmoker, but exposed to second hand smoke your risk is also elevated, but not to the degree as the smoker.

  • High blood cholesterol - High blood cholesterol levels lead to heart disease.

  • High blood pressure - This causes the heart to have to work that much harder.

  • Physical activity - Inactive people tend to have higher heart rates. A higher heart rate means the heart must pump harder, exerting more force on artery walls.

  • Excess weight - Excess weight also gives the heart more work. Not only does the blood have to travel further to supply all your body tissues, but more blood is required to do so.

  • Diabetes - Approximately 75% percent of individuals with diabetes die from some form of heart disease.

  • Stress - It is common for someone with high stress levels to turn to food or cigarettes to cope, which links us back to heart disease.

  • Alcohol - Alcohol is linked to elevated blood pressure, obesity, and heart disease.

Take steps to protect your heart health

What action can you take today to counteract your family health history?

If you live with high blood pressure, access my free ecourse 7 Natural Ways to Lower Blood Pressure for steps you can take now for heart health.

See more helpful articles:

Heart Attack Symptoms and Warning Signs

Life with High Cholesterol

Stress, Cortisol, and Your Heart