Most people are aware that heart disease runs in the family. But when should you have concerns regarding your own heart health?
“One of the most common heart conditions we see that carries a higher risk for family members is coronary artery disease,” states Mary Krogstad, a cardiology nurse practitioner at Altru Health System. “Coronary artery disease is usually caused by the buildup of plaque in your arteries, and this buildup restricts blood flow to your heart.”
Two common heart conditions that can be inherited and often coincide with coronary heart disease include hypertension and hyperlipidemia.
- Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is a condition where a restriction of the blood flow in your arteries causes an increase in pressure.
- Hyperlipidemia is the technical term for high cholesterol. When your body is producing too much “bad” cholesterol in your blood, or LDL, it builds up in your arteries and restricts the flow of blood to your heart.
Hypertension, hyperlipidemia and coronary heart disease all develop over time and can cause more serious problems such as a heart attack or stroke.
I have heart disease in my family history. What should I do?
If someone in your immediate family developed a heart condition before the age of 55 for men or before the age of 65 for women, you are considered to have a family history of heart disease. Because common familial heart conditions develop slowly, the symptoms may be subtle. If you learn you have a family history, share that with your provider and monitor symptoms carefully. You should tell your doctor if you are experiencing chest pain, heart palpitations or shortness of breath and fatigue.
Depending on your overall health, family history and whether or not you are experiencing symptoms, your provider may recommend that you have regular screenings completed to check your heart health. These tests could include one of the following:
- Stress test – The stress test usually involves exercise, like walking on a treadmill or riding a stationary bike, to measure how your heart performs during physical activity.
- Echocardiogram – This test, also called an echo, is a type of ultrasound that uses sound waves to produce moving pictures of your heart. This helps your provider identify which parts of your heart may not be contributing normally to its activity.
- Electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG) – An EKG checks the heart’s electrical activity to narrow down the possible causes of chest pain and other symptoms of heart disease.
- Coronary angiogram – During this test, a special dye that’s visible in X-ray images is injected into the blood vessels of your heart through a catheter. The dye helps to identify blockages and narrow spots in your arteries.
- Cardiac CT scan – A heart CT scan tests the coronary calcium in your arteries and can potentially identify heart disease before you have any signs or symptoms. However, some types of heart disease don’t show up on a CT scan, so your doctor may order other tests as well. This test is best for patients with moderate or unknown risk of heart disease.
“The test or treatment recommended by your provider will be determined by the way you present at the clinic or hospital,” explains Krogstad. “For example, if you arrive at the emergency room because you’re having a heart attack, the emergency room staff might order an EKG. If you tell your primary care provider during an annual checkup that you’ve been having chest pains, he might recommend you start with a stress test or an echo.”
How can I prevent heart disease if it runs in my family?
If you have a family history of heart disease, prevent these conditions or slow their progression through lifestyle change and preventative care. Choose heart healthy foods, don’t smoke and exercise regularly to help decrease your risk or minimize the effects of heart disease. Krogstad recommends 20-30 minutes of movement every day. “Not everyone likes to run on a treadmill. Find something that you enjoy doing to get those minutes in each day.”
She also encourages patients to know their heart health numbers.
- An LDL cholesterol level of less than 100 is optimal for a person without heart disease, whereas a patient with heart disease should aim for an LDL of less than 70.
- Your “good” cholesterol level, or HDL level, if you are a healthy adult with no known heart conditions should be above 40. A patient with heart disease may have a 20-30 HDL number with the goal to increase it to 40 or higher.
Sometimes medications can be introduced to help with these numbers, but changes in your lifestyle are usually the best way to decrease your risk. If you don’t know your numbers, schedule an appointment with your primary provider to be tested. You’ll want to meet with your doctor regularly to make sure you are properly managing your health.
Krogstad states, “I always tell patients recently diagnosed with any of these three heart conditions, it’s not the end of life. They are treatable conditions.” She encourages patients to be proactive with their heart health by maintaining a healthy lifestyle early in life, even if you don’t have a family history of heart disease.
If you have a family history of heart disease, or simply want to be proactive about taking care of your ticker, learn more about what Altru’s Heart and Vascular Services team can offer to keep you well at altru.org/heart.