Millennials and Family Medical History: Finding Better Heart Health through Knowledge of Your Risk

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By: Melissa Schenkman, MPH, MSJ

It’s the one thing that has always been most near and dear to my heart: my family and knowing its history—both personal and medical.

By the time I was in elementary school my parents had told me that heart problems run in our family. I learned that I have relatives with high blood pressure and high cholesterol, and that even my paternal grandfather, who I’m named after, died of a heart attack after having valve disease.

Was it concerning? Yes. But what happens to your family members does not have to be your destiny too. And to have a chance at better heart health for each of us, knowing your family’s health history shouldn’t be the exception, it should be the rule.

Nicole Harkin, MD, FACC, is board-certified in cardiology, internal medicine, echocardiography, nuclear cardiology, clinical lipidology (specializing in cholesterol).

Taking the time to learn what heart-related conditions run in your family can help you make choices today that can make a difference in the quality life you will lead tomorrow and for many years to come.

Fellow millennial and cardiologist, Nicole Harkin, MD, of Whole Heart Cardiology tells us which questions are key to ask about our family’s history of heart health. She also shares information on three heart conditions that can run in families, and how we can be proactive about them in our 20s, 30s, and as newly minted 40-year-old’s.

Learning Your Story

Your first-degree relatives—parents, siblings, and children—are the ones mostly taken into consideration when it comes to your family’s history of heart health. The reason: because this is what has been shown to be most impactful in terms of increasing your personal risk for heart disease, Harkin said.

However, she also likes to hear about heart disease in patients’ other relatives, such as grandparents, aunts, and uncles.

“Patterns can be really useful. If all of your dad’s brothers had early heart disease, that’s a major clue that

there’s something genetic at play that you may have inherited, and I certainly take that into account,” she said.

Finding out information about your parents and other family members can be your first clue about having any type of genetic predisposition (aka. an increased likelihood of developing a condition based on the genes you inherit from your parents) for heart disease, Harkin says.

It certainly was for me and has definitely impacted my lifestyle choices and conversations with doctors through the years.

To start the conversation with your family, Harkin recommends millennials ask these questions:   

  • Has anyone (particularly a first degree relative) had a heart attack or stroke early? Early is defined as before the age of 55 in men and before the age of 65 in women.

*If you have a relative who has had a heart attack or stroke in one of these age groups, it increases your potential risk of premature heart disease. Also, Harkin says, it will tip your doctor off that they might want to check some extra tests.

  • Has anyone in the family died suddenly at a young age and with no known reason as to why?  

*If yes, this is often due to heart disease, either a sudden heart attack or a rhythm issue, and so we include that in our assessment, says Harkin.

History Red Flags and What You Can Do

Blood Pressure

“Blood pressure can be familial, both due to genetics as well as shared lifestyle habits,” Harkin said. “High blood pressure is when the force of the blood through your arteries is higher than it should be.”

If you’re a millennial who has a family history of high blood pressure, it’s important to make sure that you get screened regularly and know what your blood pressure reading is.

“If you don’t have a regular doctor you see, you can even get it checked at the pharmacy!” Harkin reminds us.

What can you do to prevent developing high blood pressure and to treat it if you do (in addition to medication)? Making healthy lifestyle choices, such as eating a diet in potassium-rich plant foods and low in salt, exercising regularly, and sleeping regularly and well, Harkin tells us.

Heart Attacks

If you have a first- or second- degree relative who has a had a heart attack, it’s really important to make sure you establish a relationship with a doctor. Some conditions that cause early heart attacks, like genetically high cholesterol can be picked up on a regular blood test.

Good news! This can be treated with medications at a young age to prevent heart disease.

If this is you—a millennial with a family history of relatives with heart attacks—it’s particularly important to pay attention to your lifestyle choices now. Stop smoking if you smoke. Get regular exercise and sleep. And eat lots of plants!

Nicole Harkin, MD

Mitral Valve Prolapse

Mitral valve prolapse is when one of the valves in your heart, the mitral valve, is floppier than it should be and leaks.

It can sometimes be genetic. My grandfather had it, my aunt has it, and I was diagnosed with it in my 30s.

“If you have a family history of mitral valve prolapse, you should be sure your doctor knows,” Harkin says.

Adding that, “while many people live long and healthy lives with mitral valve prolapse, it does occasionally get so leaky that it requires surgery to fix it.”

Unfortunately, there is not much evidence on anything to prevent it from occurring or from becoming too leaky.

For more relevant and interesting information about your heart, visit our Heart Health page.

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