I’ve always known that my family has a history of heart-related health problems. My maternal grandmother had high blood pressure, as do other relatives on my mom’s side. Some also have heart rhythm issues.
I never thought to mention those details to my primary care physician until recently—which was a mistake. He made it clear he should have known about this from the start in order to have me screened for anything a basic check-up might miss, and he referred me to a cardiologist to get that underway.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that a history of cardiovascular conditions in your biological family—which includes biggies like high blood pressure, heart attacks, and heart failure, among others—raises your risk of heart disease. For instance: According to the Cleveland Clinic, having one or more close family members who were diagnosed with high blood pressure before age 60 doubles a person’s risk of developing hypertension (a.k.a. my exact situation).
Plus, as Marietta Ambrose, MD, MPH, director of Penn Cardiology International and an associate professor of clinical medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, tells SELF, “There may be times when the only way you have an idea that there is an issue is if you know your family history.” For example, a sudden lack of appetite might not seem super concerning—but if cardiovascular issues run in your family, it can be a potential indicator of something more serious, like heart failure, especially if you have other symptoms.
When certain heart problems are caught before they pose a more serious risk to your health, they can often be treated much more effectively—meaning you might also reduce your risk of developing complications down the road. Getting the full picture of your family members’ heart health is enormously useful to this process—and if you’re adopted or speaking to your biological family isn’t possible for whatever reason, you have options when it comes to understanding this too. Here’s how your birth family’s health history can help you get answers.
What should you know about your family’s heart health history?
At a minimum, do what you can to find out if anyone in your biological nuclear family—meaning, your parents and siblings by birth—had or has heart issues, Sanjiv Patel, MD, an interventional cardiologist at MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California, tells SELF. “It can also be helpful to have information from grandparents, aunts, and uncles,” he says, so if you also have that info or that’s all you can get, don’t discount it.
But what details should you look for, exactly? Having a general inkling that some family members had heart-related issues is a good place to start if it’s all you’ve got access to, but if you can get more specific, it’ll help you at your appointment. “It’s important to know exactly what heart condition [your family members] had or were diagnosed with, and the age that they [were diagnosed],” Jim Liu, MD, a cardiologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells SELF. Conditions like coronary artery disease and risk factors like high blood pressure and high cholesterol are often influenced by a person’s genetics.1 Cardiomyopathies, sudden cardiac death,2 aortic aneurysms, and certain heart valve defects also sometimes signal underlying conditions that can be hereditary, Dr. Liu says. If someone in your family needed stents in their heart or bypass surgery or even died at a young age for unclear reasons, bring that up to your doctor.