Each year in India, about 20,000 people die from heart disease. Medical conditions such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes, as well as lifestyle factors such as an unhealthy diet, lack of physical activity, and smoking, can all increase your risk of developing heart disease. What’s more, having close blood relatives with heart disease can increase your risk of heart disease.

Does your family have a history of heart disease?

Your older brother has high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Your father has had a heart attack at age 60. As you face your middle age, you wonder whether you too should be worried. Research shows that siblings with a parent who has suffered from heart disease are 48% more likely to experience one, and those with two parents with a history of heart disease have a nearly six-fold increased risk.

People generally refer to coronary artery disease (CAD) when they talk about heart diseases. Plaque buildup on the walls of the arteries that supply the heart with blood causes CAD. Blood has a hard time flowing through the arteries as they narrow, leading to a heart attack or stroke.

Since CAD is so common, it is not unusual to have a family member diagnosed with the disease.

Why does family history increase your risk?

Trillions of cells make up your body, each of which has a nucleus, containing information that makes you unique. You store this information in your genes. Each of us possesses about 20,000 to 25,000 distinct genes.

Genes affect how we look and how our bodies work, and we inherit them from our parents. Inheritance of conditions such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol can be a result of genes. These conditions raise your chances of developing heart diseases. No single gene increases your risk; instead, several genes are likely to be involved.

What is the difference between family history and inherited conditions?

Although genetics increase your chances of heart diseases, inherited conditions are because of a mutation in one or more of your genes. If one of your parents has a mutated gene, there is a 50 % chance you will inherit it. The most common inherited conditions are heart muscle disease and very high cholesterol levels.

Family history is a more complex situation. The combination of shared genes passed from one generation to another increases the risk of developing a disease rather than a single faulty gene.

What should you do if you have a family history?

If you have a family history of heart disease, tell your doctor. You must have a Heart Health Check by the age of 45. However, if you have a family history of heart disease, your doctor may want to assess it earlier.

You may be unable to change your family genetics, but you can lower your risk by making positive lifestyle changes.

Padma Shri Awardee Dr. K K Aggarwal, President of the Heart Care Foundation of India (HCFI) and Immediate Past National President of the Indian Medical Association (IMA), said, “Those with a family history of heart attack should begin taking preventive measures and precautions at an early stage. This includes eating a heart-healthy diet consisting of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and omega-3 fatty acids, regular physical activity, and quitting smoking or drinking.”

Here are a few healthy lifestyle habits you can adopt to lower your risk of getting heart disease:

  • Quitting smoking
  • Exercising regularly
  • Eating a healthy, balanced diet
  • Maintaining a healthy body weight
  • Lowering your alcohol intake
  • Managing high blood pressure and cholesterol
  • Managing diabetes.

Despite the familiarity of the advice, it can make a big difference in reducing your risk of a heart attack. Heart and circulatory diseases run in families, so it is important to know that you are not alone. Seek support from healthcare professionals and your family and friends.