Your Heart, and Your Family Tree

By: Bo Kane
By: Bo Kane

May 27, 2005

If your father, and his father both had heart attacks, are you likely to have one? How important are genetics?

Cardiologist Dr. Chris Friend says "We see clusters of families where many of the people have had heart attacks and strokes and we assume it's a genetic or chromosomal inherited problem, but it's not. There is an aspect of family history in athrosclerosis, but it's very small. People talk about a family history of heart disease; that's often misunderstood. I have people come in and say, 'I know I'm big. Everybody in my family is big.' That's not genetic; they all eat the same terrible diet. They think that's okay, that's the normal way to eat."

So how much does the family tree factor into the health of our heart?
Dr. Friend says "The short answer is 'not much'. When you compare it to the risk that the other things bring: smoking, diabetes, excess weight, sedentary lifestyle, high cholesterol...the risk for those is far, far greater. The risk from genetics alone, when you separate that out, is very small."

Dr. Friend also notes "You can't choose your parents, but you can choose your lifestyle. You can choose a healthy lifestyle, whether or not your parents follow that."

Dr. Friend explains that when looking at genetics, only look at your immediate family. Uncles, cousins, and grandparents don't count.

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