Family Risk of Heart Attack

"Dad had a heart attack." Those five words are life-changing for any family. Once you have coped with the impact of what having a heart attack has had on him—or any other family member who has suffered from one—it's time to turn some attention on to what the heart attack means for you.

Family Heart Attack Image - Masterfile

If your father, mother, sister, or brother has had a heart attack—especially if it was at an early age—you're at an increased risk for having one or developing another form of heart disease yourself.

How Parents Can Affects Heart Attack Risk

A 2011 study from McMaster University in Ontario studied the impact of parental heart-attack history in tens of thousands of people all around the world. They found that—compared to someone with completely heart-healthy parents—a heart attack in Mom or Dad's past does significantly increase your risk of having a heart attack yourself.

You may have already known or at least suspected this, but just by how much that family history impacts you is pretty startling to see spelled out:

  • 1 parent who had a heart attack at age 50 or older—your increased risk is 67 percent
  • 1 parent who had a heart attack under age 50—your increased risk is 136 percent
  • 2 parents who had heart attacks at age 50 or older—your increased risk is 190 percent
  • 2 parents who had heart attacks, one under age 50 and one at 50 or older—your increased risk is 226 percent
  • 2 parents who had heart attacks under age 50—your increased risk is 556 percent

Perhaps even more jarring is that when the researchers adjusted the results to account for participants' age, sex, region, and 9 common risk factors—high cholesterol, smoking, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, physical activity, fruit and vegetable consumption, alcohol consumption, and psychosocial factors—the risk increase in all five groups remained significant.

Determine Your Own Heart Disease Risk

Think closely about what caused your loved one's heart attack. This may help you recognize unhealthy habits or risk factors you share; the people in your family may be heavy smokers, lead sedentary lifestyles, or eat poorly and tend to be overweight, for example.

You could also be predisposed to risk factors you can't control—if your family is of African-American descent or has a history of type 2 diabetes, to name a few. Out of everything that contributed to your parent's or sibling's heart attack, what similarities can you find in your own life? What can you control?

Even if you don't have much in common with a family member who's had a heart attack, take the opportunity to learn about what hidden risk factors you may have—and what you can do to protect yourself and the rest of your family.

Having a parent or sibling who has heart disease or has had a heart attack at an early age (before 55 for men and before 65 for women) is already a red flag. If you fall into this category, ask yourself these questions to determine what other risk factors you may have.

  • Do I have high blood pressure? (140/90 mm Hg or above)
  • Do I have high total cholesterol? (240 mg/dL or above). Ask your doctor about your LDL and HDL levels, as well.
  • Do I have diabetes or elevated blood sugar levels?
  • Do I smoke?
  • Do I drink more than one (for women) or two (for men) alcoholic beverages a day?
  • Am I overweight or obese?
  • Do I exercise for less than 30 minutes most days?
  • Who else in my family has a history of early heart disease?
  • Am I a man age 45 and up or a woman age 55 and up?

Signs of a Genetic Disorder

In some cases, a parent's early heart attack may be indicative of a genetic disorder such as hypercholesterolemia, which makes your body unable to remove "bad" LDL cholesterol from the blood and causes abnormally high levels. This condition begins at birth and affects about one in 500 Americans, and you can inherit it from either parent.

Early detection and treatment of this disorder—through dietary changes, weight loss, exercise and cholesterol-lowering medication if neededٳcan reduce your risk of suffering complications. Symptoms include fatty skin deposits over the elbows, knees, buttocks, tendons and around the cornea of the eye.

Reducing Your Heart Disease Risk

Regardless of how many risk factors you have now, you can reduce your chance of developing heart disease by making heart-healthy choices from here on out. Don't smoke, exercise regularly (aim for 30 minutes of moderate activity on most days), maintain a healthy weight, and don't exceed current recommendations for alcohol consumption.

You may consider adopting the Therapeutic Lifestyle Choice (TLC) diet—an eating plan that can help lower LDL "bad" cholesterol. On the TLC diet, less than 7% of your daily calories should come from saturated fat, and you should consume less than 200 mg of dietary cholesterol per day.

If you have high or borderline high blood pressure, you should limit you dietary sodium intake; there's also an eating plan designed to help lower high blood pressure called the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH). If blood pressure and/or cholesterol levels can't be lowered by lifestyle changes alone, your doctor may suggest medication.

Keep track of your family's health and make your doctor aware of any other conditions that close relatives might have. Even if you are healthy today, be on the lookout for changes in your risk profile. Get a checkup at least once a year, and ask how often you should have your blood pressure and cholesterol tested.

Written by: Amanda MacMillan

Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Family History Fact Sheet. Available at: Accessed: June 4, 2011.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Genomics and Health: Heart Disease and Family History. Available at: Accessed: June 4, 2011.

Chow, Clara K., et al. "Parental History and Myocardial Infarction Risk Across the World: The INTERHEART Study." Journal of the American College of Cardiology. 2011 57: 619-627. Heart Health: Quick Guide to Healthy Living. Available at: Accessed: June 4, 2011.

National Diabetes Education Program. Know Your Family Health History to Prevent Diabetes in the Future. Available at: Accessed: June 4, 2011.

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. High Blood Cholesterol: What You Need to Know. Available at: Accessed: June 4, 2011.

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Reducing Heart Attack Risk. Available at: Accessed: June 4, 2011.

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Your Guide to a Healthy Heart. Available at: Accessed: June 4, 2011.

The Office of Minority Health. Heart Disease and African Americans. Available at: Accessed at: June 4, 2011.

PubMed Health. Familial Hypercholesterolemia. Available at: Accessed: June 4, 2011.

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at

Published: 16 Jun 2011

Last Modified: 18 Sep 2015