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Heart Attacks Run in My Family. Am I Next?

By Maureen Salamon

Updated November 01, 2008

(LifeWire) - With more than 920,000 Americans suffering heart attacks (or myocardial infarction), each year, it's natural for family members of those with heart disease to wonder if they might be next. Heart disease does follow family lines.

Family history is one of the strongest risk factors for developing cardiovascular trouble. Individuals whose parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles or cousins have had heart disease are at greater risk themselves.

As part of their effort to decipher the genetic links of diseases, scientists have studied the impact of heredity on heart disease. Thus far, they've made little headway in pinpointing specific genes that prompt it, though they have identified a gene variant that increases risk.

But the overall link to heredity is clear. A 2007 study in the American Journal of Cardiology found that the chances of healthy brothers of heart patients developing similar problems rise by 20% within 10 years. And a 2007 study in the British Medical Journal reported that -- compared to the general population -- siblings of heart disease patients are twice as likely to suffer heart attacks. The authors concluded that screening these people could prevent more than 40% of premature heart attacks. But how?

After all, heredity -- along with age and gender -- is one of those factors we can't do anything about. The key lies in controlling other risk factors that we can affect, such as cholesterol level, smoking status, high blood pressure, exercise level, diabetes and weight.

Several organizations, including the National Cholesterol Education Program and the American Heart Association, offer online tools for cardiac-risk assessment, considering various factors to estimate an individual's 10-year risk of suffering a heart attack or dying of heart disease.

If you have a positive family history of heart problems, it's important to take action: Talk to your doctor; get a complete physical exam, including cholesterol, blood pressure and diabetes tests; and consider what to do about risk factors that you can modify.

Read more about assessing and controlling your risk for heart disease here.


Chow, C.K., A.C.H. Pell, A. Walker, C. O'Dowd, A.F. Dominiczak, and J.P. Pell. "Families of Patients with Premature Coronary Heart Disease: An Obvious But Neglected Target for Primary Prevention." British Medical Journal 335:7618(2007) 481-85. 3 Oct. 2008 <http://www.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/335/7618/481>.

"Risk Factors and Coronary Heart Disease." americanheart.org. 2008. American Heart Association. 2 Oct. 2008 <http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=4726>.

Scheuner, Maren T., William C. Whitworth, Henraya McGruder, Paula W. Yoon, and Muin J. Khoury. "Expanding the Definition of a Positive Family History for Early-Onset Coronary Heart Disease." Genetics in Medicine 8:8(2006) 491-501. 3 Oct. 2008 <http://www.geneticsinmedicine.org/pt/re/gim/abstract.00125817-20>.

Vaidya, Dhananjay, Lisa R. Yanek, Taryn F. Moy, Thomas A. Pearson, Lewis C. Becker, and Diane M. Becker. "Incidence of Coronary Artery Disease in Siblings of Patients with Premature Coronary Artery Disease: 10 Years of Follow-Up." American Journal of Cardiology 100:9(2007) 1410-15. 3 Oct. 2008 <http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6T>.

LifeWire, a part of The New York Times Company, provides original and syndicated online lifestyle content. Maureen Salamon is a New Jersey-based freelance writer who has written for newspapers, websites and hospitals.

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