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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?

Distant Relatives and Your Risks of Heart Disease

What's less clear is how more-distant relatives, such as aunts, uncles, and grandparents, affect your heart disease risk.

"The data isn't as strong, but some suggest it still plays a role," says Blumenthal. One study showed that second-degree relatives with cardiovascular disease are also associated with an increased risk of having a higher coronary calcium score." A high coronary calcium score suggests coronary artery disease and can be an early warning sign of heart disease.

Yet Hazen says that he tends not to consider such relatives as part of a patient's risk profile. "It's a further shade of gray away."

If there's serious history of heart disease lurking nearby in your family tree, can a healthy lifestyle negate your risk? It probably can't erase the risk entirely, but it can slash it substantially.

"You can't eliminate the influence of these genetic factors, but by adopting a very healthy lifestyle -- eating well, pursuing an exercise program, and aggressively working on lowering your cholesterol and triglycerides -- you can substantially reduce your risk," says Hazen. "Both heart disease itself, and the contributing risk factors like blood pressure and cholesterol, are controlled by both genetic and environmental factors."

If you do have a strong family history of heart disease, don't figure that you can wait until you're older to take care of your own risk factors. "If you are a college student with substantially increased risk because of elevated cholesterol, the time to start aggressive lifestyle changes and therapy is now," says Hazen. "The longer you do it, the more benefit accrues over time. The younger you are, the more you stand to benefit from therapy."

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Reviewed on July 19, 2007

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