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

By Dr Michael MacDonald

Family

There are tons of great things passed down through families: heirlooms, recipes, pictures, and memories. Still, many things are less pleasant that are passed through family lines - one of these things is a higher risk for heart disease. If one or both of your parents have had a heart attack, you may be at risk for suffering the same fate, as it can indicate a strong family history of being genetically prone to heart attacks. It is by no means set in stone, but you should look into factors that may run in your family and take steps to promote 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. In that case, this can indicate 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 grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins can also show a family history of heart disease, but it is only considered a ‘strong’ history for those in your immediate family circle.

Why is Family History Important?

As with all of your genes, a predisposition towards heart attacks is passed from parent to child. Just like you can get your eye color, nose shape, or any number of other features from your parents, you can also inherit genetic predispositions to many dangerous health conditions. Additionally, if any of these things have been passed down to your biological siblings, they could also have been passed down to you. 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) is characterized by 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, which is another kind of overall high cholesterol.

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

Just because you have a strong predisposition to a disease or condition doesn’t mean you will definitely suffer the worst consequences of it. 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 highly processed foods, and sugary foods and drinks.
  • Exercise: Maintaining a regular exercise plan can help to keep cholesterol in check. Do 150 minutes of moderate exercise (walking briskly, swimming, or yoga), or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise (running, rowing, high-intensity interval training) at the very least. 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 nearly always not be enough. When you get an familial hyperlipidemia diagnosis, discuss medication options with your doctor to choose the one that will suit you best.

Warning Signs to Look Out For

While the most apparent sign of familial hyperlipidemia is having a close family member or members who suffer heart attacks, 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 coloration in the whites of the eyes

Of course, most of these symptoms can be indicative of other conditions or diseases. However, if tests show that you have high cholesterol and you don’t know your family’s medical history, it is undoubtedly worth bringing up these symptoms to your doctor.

Conclusion

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, keeping yourself healthy with diet, exercise, and medication, and keeping an eye out for symptoms are vital to living as long and as healthily as possible.


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