My Mum/Dad had a Heart Attack - Is that Important for Me?

By Dr Michael MacDonald


Great things get passed down through families: heirlooms, recipes, pictures, and memories. And yet, we also pass down less pleasant things - like a higher risk for heart disease. If either of your parents have had a heart attack, it might be a sign that you are at risk of heart disease. It is by no means set in stone, but you should look into factors that may run in your family and take steps to live a heart-healthy lifestyle.

What does a Strong Family History Mean?

Suppose your father or brother has had a heart attack or stroke before the age of 55. This can be a sign of a strong family history, which is also referred to as Familia Hyperlipidemia (FH). The same holds true if your mother or sister has had a heart attack or stroke before the age of 65. Your extended family can also show a family history of heart but is only considered a ‘strong’ history for those in your immediate family.

Why is Family History Important?

As with all genes, a predisposition towards heart attacks passes from parent to child. You inherit all sorts of things from your parents, including things like eye colour and nose shape. You can also inherit genetic predispositions to many dangerous health conditions. If your siblings have health issues, you may also be at risk. So, it is important to be aware of any health issues your brothers and sisters have, if possible.

Types of Familial Hyperlipidemia (Inherited high cholesterol)

Various kinds of Hyperlipidemia can be passed through the family. They are:
  • Familial Combined Hyperlipidemia (FCHL) presents as high total cholesterol, LDL, triglycerides, and low HDL levels.
  • Familial Defective Apolipoprotein B-100, which is simply high total cholesterol.
  • Familial dysbetalipoproteinemia (type 3 hyperlipoproteinemia) is a combination of high total cholesterol and high triglycerides.
  • Familial hypertriglyceridemia, which is triglycerides at very high levels
  • Heterozygous familial hypercholesterolemia is another kind of high cholesterol.

What Should I do if I have a Strong family history?

Even if you have a strong predisposition to a disease or condition it doesn’t mean you will definitely suffer. Nor does it mean that there is nothing you can do to increase your likelihood of avoiding a heart attack or stroke. In fact, there are many things you can do to help you stay healthy and live a long, full life:
  • Get your cholesterol checked!
  • Diet: Avoid fast food, fried or processed foods, and sugary foods and drinks.
  • Exercise: Maintaining a regular exercise plan can help to keep cholesterol in check. Aim to do 150 minutes of moderate exercise such as walking briskly, swimming, or yoga. You can also aim for 75 minutes of vigorous exercise such as running, rowing, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) instead. If you split it up throughout the week, it becomes a much less daunting time commitment.
  • Don’t Smoke: Smoking causes so many health problems, including heart attack and stroke risk. So, if you are a smoker, quit. If you aren’t a smoker, don’t start.
  • Medication: There is no getting around it. If you have familial hyperlipidemia, diet, exercise, and not smoking will not be enough. When you get a familial hyperlipidemia diagnosis, discuss medication with your doctor and choose the one that will suit you best.

Warning Signs to Look Out For

The clearest sign of familial hyperlipidemia is having a close family member or members who suffer heart attacks. That said, there are some physical symptoms to be aware of. If you don’t know your family history, keep an eye out for the following warning signs:
  • Lumps around finger joints
  • Lumps around the Achilles tendon
  • A pale or white-ish ring around your iris
  • Yellow colouration in the whites of the eyes
  • Of course, most of these symptoms can be indicative of other conditions or diseases. If tests show that you have high cholesterol and you're not sure of your family’s medical history, it is worth talking with your doctor.


If you’ve been diagnosed with familial hyperlipidemia, take heart! It doesn’t mean in any way that you can’t avoid a heart attack or stroke. In fact, knowing your diagnosis will help you to understand your risks and ways you can prevent a fatal attack. Knowing your family history, eating a healthy diet, exercising and taking your medication, and watching for symptoms is vital to living a long and healthy life.

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