Family History

Your family history of cardiovascular disease is a strong indicator of your personal risk. A positive family history involving first-degree relatives is generally associated with a twofold increase in the risk for CVD.

Family history of CVD is the result of both genetic and behavioural factors. Adopting healthy lifestyle behaviours early on is key to reducing your overall CVD risk.

The Influence of Your Genes

Often referred to as your “genetics,” family history is the health information about you and your blood relatives. Family history is important in determining your risk for CVD because you and your blood relatives share the same genes. If a close family member — a parent, brother, or sister — developed heart disease before age 55 or, in the case of female relatives, before menopause, this indicates you may be at greater risk of developing CVD.

Your family history can influence your risk for heart disease in many ways. Genes control every aspect of the cardiovascular system, from the strength of the blood vessels to the way cells in the heart communicate. For many common conditions, such as coronary artery disease, stroke, atrial fibrillation, and diabetes, there are many risk factors — genetic, lifestyle, and environmental — that increase a person’s risk of developing the disease.

Genetic tests do not currently exist to measure individual risk for most cardiovascular diseases because the specific genetic factors are not yet fully understood. This makes family history, along with information about lifestyle choices and environment, one of the most important tools doctors have for assessing individual risk.

The Value of Family Screening

When a family member is diagnosed with cardiovascular disease, other family members may be encouraged to undergo screening to detect early stages of disease.

Aspects of family history that indicate a higher risk for heart disease include:

  • Early onset of cardiovascular disease — for instance, coronary artery disease in men younger than 55 and women younger than 65
  • Cardiovascular disease in two or three relatives on the same side of the family
  • Late onset of cardiovascular disease on both sides of the family
  • The loss of a family member to sudden cardiac death

With the appropriate medical treatment, people at increased risk for heart disease can delay the onset and lessen the severity of the disease.

Action Tips

  • Make sure your family doctor knows your family history.
  • Discuss risk and lifestyle with your children and siblings.

Certain diseases are more common in some families than in others. Your own risk may be higher than average because of the genes you inherited. Or it may be high because the members of your family all tend to make similar lifestyle choices and hold similar beliefs about diet and exercise, as families will do. If you have a family history of CVD, you should try to make lifestyle changes to reduce your risk.

If you have a family history of CVD, you can’t change your genetics, but there’s plenty you can do to prevent or avoid the disease. Knowing you’re at increased risk can motivate you to take precautions to control other risk factors.