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Heart Disease in the Family? 8 Steps to Take

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Elizabeth Klodas, MD, FACC - Blogs
By Elizabeth Klodas, MD, FACCBoard-certified cardiologistFebruary 22, 2016
From the WebMD Archives

Many of my patients who have a family history of heart issues seem to resign themselves to the idea that they’ll experience the same fate as their relatives. They assume that it’s just a matter of time until heart disease finds them – they think that genetics has the last word.

That’s simply not true.

Genetics is not destiny. It is merely a predisposition. And that means if you are vigilant and proactive, you have a big say in your outcome.

I often use the story of the Three Little Pigs to highlight the role of genetics on heart disease. We are all handed a genetic blueprint when we are born. But how we act upon that blueprint can yield very different results. Each of the Three Little Pigs was handed the same blueprint instruction: build a house. But each pig used very different materials with very different outcomes.

So even if you’ve been given a faulty blueprint, build with bricks not with straw!

How to do this? First, the obvious:

  • Don’t smoke.
  • Move your body every day.
  • Eat a diet rich in beans and greens, nuts and seeds, fruits and vegetables, and grains in their most whole and unprocessed forms – in other words, a whole-food plant-based diet.
  • Get down to a healthy weight and stay there (which will happen on its own if you move your body and eat a whole-food plant-based diet).

Of course, all of the points above are good advice regardless of your personal blueprint, but it’s especially critical for those with a family history of heart problems.

These lifestyle changes are not enough, though. You also need to get more interested in your risk factor profile and work hard to neutralize any risks you have. This is where you’ll need to get serious about being proactive – you’ll need to have conversations with your doctor, ask questions, and maybe even do a little research.

What does it mean to get more serious?

  • Get more clarity about your family history. Find out more about the heart histories of your relatives and about any risk factors that they had. If autopsies were done, try to get those records.
  • Get more information about your own risk factors. Get your cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar assessed. If you’re over 30 and you’ve not had that done, you’re overdue.
  • In conjunction with your provider, determine if you are a candidate for additional screening, such as coronary calcium scanning, or more in depth blood work like advanced lipid testing.
  • Optimize the management of any risk factors that are uncovered. Even if this means starting medications.

One final thought: Sometimes people build straw houses not out of ignorance, but out of denial or fear – the heart disease in their family may have resulted in loss or trauma, making it something that they don’t want to look at or think about. Or they’re afraid of what they may find when they check their own risk profile. That’s a very natural reaction, but ultimately not very helpful. You have a lot of power over your health destiny, but nothing will change until you take action.

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About the Author
Elizabeth Klodas, MD, FACC

Elizabeth Klodas, MD, FACC, is a cardiologist and founder of Preventive Cardiology Consultants in Minneapolis. Her professional interests include noninvasive cardiac imaging and valvular heart disease, but her true passion is heart disease prevention.

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