American Heart Month

What Role Do Genes Play in Heart Disease Risk?

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By Henry Ford Health System Staff

Our genes are responsible for various things: the way we look, our blood type and even our risk of developing certain medical conditions.

As the leading cause of death in the United States, heart disease is no joke. Could your genes be putting you at an even greater risk for developing this fatal condition?

It turns out they could, says David Lanfear, M.D., a cardiologist at Henry Ford Health System.

“Cardiovascular risk can definitely be inherited,” he says. “A family history of heart attack or coronary artery disease — meaning you have an affected parent or sibling — increases your risk of developing that disease.”

For example, if your father had a heart attack before age 45 or your mom had one before age 55, you are at greater risk of suffering a heart attack.

Aside from these inherited genes, other biological factors can affect your risk of developing heart disease. For example, African Americans are known to be at an elevated risk for diabetes and high blood pressure, which can indicate a predisposition to coronary disease and heart failure.

In some patients who have heart failure for unexplained reasons (what’s known as idiopathic cardiomyopathy), there are rare specific genetic causes which are thought to make up about one quarter of these unexplained cases.

My family has a history of heart disease. Is there anything I can do?
Your genes are what they are throughout your life, meaning they never change. Fortunately, though, even for those whose genes may predispose them to heart disease, there are ways to prevent it. Exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy diet, not smoking, managing stress, and controlling blood pressure and diabetes are some of the biggest ways you can avoid this unwanted family legacy.

“All of the things we recommend to minimize the risk of cardiovascular disease apply equally, if not more so, to people with elevated familial or genetic risk. Watching for hypertension and keeping your blood pressure controlled, keeping cholesterol in check, and keeping your heart healthy all still help you, even if you have a genetic predisposition,” Lanfear says.

Another way to arm yourself is by talking with your doctor. When your doctor is aware of your family history, they can provide advice specific to your needs, as well as required blood tests such as those to check your cholesterol and other factors that inform heart risk.

How healthy is your heart? Take the heart risk quiz to find out. Then, schedule an appointment with your primary care provider or find a heart expert at henryford.com or by calling 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).

Dr. David Lanfear is a cardiologist specializing in advanced heart failure and heart transplant. He sees patients at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.