Family History and Heart Disease


As the saying goes, you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family. You can’t choose the genes or traits you inherit from them, either.

“Both the risk of heart disease and risk factors are strongly linked to family history,” said William Kraus, M.D., a preventive cardiologist and research scientist at Duke University. “If someone had a stroke in your family, you are more likely to have one.”

Survivor Mary Leah Coco inherited the whole kit and caboodle from her family’s gene pool. But while most women wouldn’t say that they are thankful for having a family history of heart disease, Mary Leah believes that taking it seriously is the only reasons she’s alive today.

Fortunately, Mary Leah’s story has a happy ending. But heart disease isn’t the No. 1 killer in women because everyone diagnosed lives healthfully ever after. That’s why it’s critical to be vigilant and investigate your own family history.

How much family history do I need to know?

The biggest mistake is not talking about your family’s health history at all. “I didn’t know that my father and all of his siblings had suffered heart attacks relatively early in life,” says Gail Alexander-Wright. Gail learned the hard way: in the ER after she suffered a heart attack.

If you don’t know the full history, start with your immediate family. Find out if your brothers, sisters, parents or grandparents had heart disease or stroke and how old they were when they developed these diseases. Also talk with your distant relatives; knowing more couldn’t hurt.

Once you’ve gathered your information, share your family history with your healthcare provider.

It runs in my family, does that mean I’m doomed?

Absolutely not. While you can’t counteract your genes, you can fight fire with fire. That means lowering your risk by changing behaviors that can increase your chances of getting heart diseases or stroke. Where should you start? “Good, healthy living – better eating habits, physical activity and eliminating smoking,” says Dr. Kraus.

Other genetic factors to be aware of

Even if your family has a clean bill of health, you should be aware of other genetic factors that can increase your family’s risk. For example, statistics show that African-American women face higher risks for high blood pressure, diabetes and stroke. Statistics also indicate that 1 in 4 Latina women will suffer from high blood pressure, and nearly half will battle high cholesterol.

All of these factors can make heart disease pop up – family history or not.

To learn about what health conditions and diseases are in your family, look at your family’s health history and make note of it. This Family Health Portrait can help you to see which health conditions and diseases you may be at risk for, and talk to your parents and other family members about their health and yours.

Remember, knowledge is power.