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Is heart disease rooted in your family tree?
Is heart disease rooted in your family tree?

Take a look at your family tree. How many branches include relatives with heart disease? If you know cardiovascular disease is rooted in your family tree, what should you do?

“Belonging to a family that has a history of heart disease can be a risk factor in your own health,” says Palmetto Health Family Practice physician Dr. Patricia Witherspoon. “If you have a parent who had an early-age heart attack, then that should be a warning to you and your siblings. Other significant risk factors include other closely-related family members who have cardiovascular problems, especially if their health problems began before they were 55 for the men or 65 for the women.”

Witherspoon points out that a family tree that indicates a genetic predisposition to a heart attack also means you may be susceptible to developing other contributing risk factors, such as high cholesterol, obesity, high blood pressure or diabetes.

If you know heart disease runs in your bloodline, consider addressing the basic risk factors now. Although we may tend to think of heart disease as something that affects older folks, recent studies show that, depending on lifestyle factors and family history/genetics, heart disease can develop in men and women in their late teens and 20s.

“The sooner you are aware of your own risk factors, the sooner you can take the proper steps toward keeping your coronary arteries open,” Witherspoon says. “Knowing you may be at risk also makes you aware of how important it is to get fast treatment if you do develop a problem.”

The American Heart Association has identified several risk factors for coronary heart disease. Some of them can be modified, treated or controlled, but some of them can’t.

Major uncontrollable risk factors

Increasing age, especially those 65 and older

Gender, especially men, who have a greater risk of heart attack and have attacks earlier in life


Other major risk factors that can be lowered by modification, treatment or control:

Tobacco smoke

High blood cholesterol levels

High blood pressure

Physical inactivity

Obesity and overweight


“Most people with a strong family history of heart disease have one or more other risk factors,” she says. “Just as you can’t control your age, sex and race, you can’t control your family history. That makes it even more important to treat and control any other risk factors you have.”

Knowing your family health history can help you and your physician determine your predisposition to a wide variety of diseases. It’s also important for early identification, treatment and/or prevention of inherited disorders such as heart disease. Visit a Website such as the American Medical Association at, which offers a tree-like diagram on which to record your family health history. Then, take advantage of family gatherings to collect information from relatives. Try to trace your health history back at least three or four generations.