Of all the risk factors for heart disease, the areas you have no control over are often the ones that are especially troublesome. While you can make inroads to a healthier diet, more activity and exercise, reducing stress, and even taking appropriate medications, it often feels like there’s nothing you can do to change your family’s track record of heart disease.
As February is American Heart Month, now is a great time to take stock of your own heart health. Knowing that your family carries a higher risk for heart disease is actually a great motivator to keep your own heart as healthy as possible. In many cases, if you ramp up your efforts to control what you can, you can negate some of your family’s health lineage.
Can you change your family’s past? No – if you had a father and three aunts who died from heart disease in their 40s, you need to take that very seriously. But it doesn’t mean you will take the same path.
How can you beat your genetics?
Know Your History
The American Heart Association recommends gathering as much family history as you possibly can. If you are at least able to start with members of your immediate family, that will help you assess your risk.
Look for family members with a history of heart attacks, strokes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or congestive heart failure. Find out how old family members were when they were diagnosed and how old they were if they died from the disease. And try to notice any patterns – is the predominant problem heart attack or stroke?
Accept (But Don’t Give Into) Your Genes
There is virtually no way to change your genetic makeup. But if you carry an elevated risk, it can make you feel unsure of what’s to come. So while you can’t change your genetic cards, you can change how you live your life.
A lifestyle that is heart-healthy, heart-friendly, and heart-supportive can contribute greatly to your overall heart health and start to bring your elevated risk into a more normal range.
Talk with Your Team
Talk to your healthcare providers to make sure you are getting all the tests you need to uncover any early indicators of heart disease. Discuss medications and other therapies that can lower your blood pressure and your cholesterol and even get things like triglycerides into normal range.
Some minority populations are more predisposed to heart disease (including African Americans and Hispanics), so go over some of those risk factors. And have a discussion about any other conditions you may have that could put you at a higher risk including diabetes, depression, and even psoriatic arthritis.
Make Heart Health a Priority
No one else is going to put your heart health first, so that’s going to be up to you. Put caring for your heart at the top of your to-do list. That means taking a look at obvious things like your eating habits, your weight, your blood pressure and cholesterol numbers. But it also means making sure you get enough sleep (lack of sleep raises your risk of heart disease over time) and making sure you take the time for pleasure.
Loneliness also contributes to declining heart health, so develop a rich social life and figure out exactly what that looks like for you. Some people want three parties every weekend and others are happiest having dinner with best friends every couple of weeks or a favorite book club every week.
No matter what story your family health patterns reveal, it doesn’t mean that’s your destiny. With some changes and lots of diligence and close observation, you can keep you heart healthy and strong.