Has Your Family’s Medical History Put You At Risk For Heart Disease?
krisanapong detraphiphat/Getty Images

In a study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association in 2019, it was found that in the U.S., an estimated 27.8 million people have a family history of premature heart disease. Among people between the ages of 20 and 39 who were dealing with cardiovascular disease, one in three cases could be attributed to a family history of premature heart disease.

While it’s startling to hear how prevalent heart disease is in families, it’s also a wake-up call for those who don’t know much about the health history of their loved ones. Heart disease is still the number one cause of death in the U.S. according to the CDC, so it’s very important to be as informed as possible to put preventative measures in place to prioritize heart health. Knowing your family’s health history is one of the first steps, and that information can come from a conversation. But when that’s not enough, there’s also another option — genetic testing.

To learn more about how family medical history impacts one’s risk for heart disease, we spoke with women’s health expert and physician Dr. Jessica Shepherd about the availability of genetic testing, changes that can be made to decrease our risk, and why open dialogue about health history in families is integral to saving lives.

ESSENCE: First and foremost, does heart disease run in one’s family?  

Dr. Jessica Shepherd: Family history is one factor that definitely contributes to heart disease. Risk factors that contribute to family history include having family members with diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol, which all can have genetic predispositions to heart disease.  Family history is just one component but a very important component of one’s overall risk for developing cardiovascular disease. To learn more about potential genetic predispositions and plan for the future, I often recommend patients to take a medical genetic test, which can reveal more about potential heart disease risk. 

How accessible is medical genetic testing? 

The affordability and accessibility of genetic testing have grown rapidly over the last decade, but medical genetic testing is still underutilized in primary healthcare. Companies like Invitae are making testing more accessible for providers and patients, and they offer medical genetic testing for genes associated with heart disease, various cancers, and more. Most Invitae tests are $250-$350 for people paying out-of-pocket and patients can easily initiate an order for a test online, as well as work with their physician to see what’s covered. But we absolutely need to do a better job of increasing the knowledge of how to access them and utilize them as they can save many people’s lives.

For those who may not have a history of heart health issues in their family, which may lead someone to think that whatever aches, pains and issues they’re having can’t be heart disease, when do we need to be on high alert when something feels a little off? And how can we stay in the know about the state of our heart health before issues even arise? 

It is very important to embrace health literacy and information, in order for anyone to access and process information that will help us participate in better health decisions now and for the future. 

For those who do have loved ones who’ve had heart attacks and high blood pressure and more, what are preventative measures that can be taken to lower one’s risk? 

There are many ways to live a longer, healthier life and tips to help lower one’s risk of heart disease that will help build a powerful prevention plan. Some of the best ways are to make small steps in your life that can contribute to a goal for the future. This includes cessation of smoking and using tobacco products, taking time to be physically active every day for at least 30 minutes and paying attention to foods we consume and making them as heart healthy as possible.

Sometimes in Black families there is a penchant to not talk about things that have affected multiple people. A lot of people don’t know that their grandmothers and aunts and uncles battled with health issues that they too could be at risk for. How can we open up the dialogue in a better way to get the answers necessary to take control of our heart health and overall health? 

Cultural norms can affect even how we exercise, eat and address diseases in our families. Continuing to open the dialogue on the heart disease risk factors is essential for each individual to make an informed decision about engaging in or continuing certain behaviors that may increase or disease risk. Representation also matters and that includes having health care professionals who represent the community to support the message and education that will empower the community.