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Preventive Cardiology Clinic

How to Fight a Genetic Predisposition for Heart Disease

Many of my patients who have a family history of heart disease assume that it’s just a matter of time until it finds them – they think that genetics has the last word.

That couldn’t be more incorrect!

Genetics are not destiny, they are merely a predisposition. 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 in 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 given the same blueprint instruction: build a house. Each pig though used very different materials with very different outcomes.

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

How do you do this? First, the 4 most obvious ways:

  • 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

  • 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 be 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. Have your cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar assessed. If you’re over 30 and you’ve not had this done, you’re overdue.

  • In conjunction with your provider, determine if you are a candidate for additional screening –like coronary calcium scanning – or more in-depth blood work like advanced lipid testing.

  • Manage your risk factors, 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 be tied to loss or trauma, making it something that they don’t want to look at or think about. They may also be afraid of what they might find when they check their own risk profile. This is 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. It’s simply not a foregone conclusion that you will follow in the footsteps of your relatives.

Build with bricks not straw.


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