Heart disease is the number one killer of both men and women nationwide, so it's crucial that you stay informed.

Chances are, someone in your family or circle of friends has had an experience with heart disease. In fact, an estimated 30.3 million adults in the United States were diagnosed with an affiliated condition in 2018 alone, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Even more alarming? Heart disease is the number one killer of both men and women nationwide—accounting for as many as one out of four deaths. It is associated with many types of conditions, but typically refers to coronary artery disease (CAD), which affects blood flow to the heart, explains Michael Blaha, M.D., the Director of Clinical Research at the Ciccarone Center for the Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease and a professor at John Hopkins Medicine. "There are several risk factors, including high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, and unhealthy lifestyle choices, such as an unhealthy diet, physical inactivity, and smoking (among others), which contribute to its commonality," he says.

family exercising on floor
Credit: wera Rodsawang / getty image

Another key risk factor—which, unfortunately, is entirely out of your control—is genetics. One study published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that individuals with a genetic risk were almost twice as likely to have a heart attack or stroke. The good news is that they were also able to lower their risk by nearly half, simply by adopting healthy lifestyle habits. If you fall into this camp and have a family history of heart disease, keep reading—ahead, you'll find several facts, tips, and tricks that experts want at-risk patients to know about this condition.

Know your detailed family history.

"There are currently 50 known genetic markers for heart disease—and it is estimated that more than 200 markers will be identified in the next five years," says Patrick Fratellone, M.D., a cardiologist based in New York City. With that said, if you have a first-degree relative with an affiliated ailment, you are at risk, he notes. Simply knowing that your relative has or had heart disease is not enough, however. Dr. Fratellone emphasizes the importance of understanding whether their condition was structural (a valve problem) or the result of an abnormal rhythm of the heart's electrical system—which will ultimately help you understand which you are at risk for.

Adopting a healthy lifestyle is a great first step.

To maintain prevent heart disease, it's important to adopt healthy lifestyle choices—especially if you have a family history. "A diet that consists of too many fried or processed foods and saturated fats can raise low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or 'bad') cholesterol levels, which can build up and cause plaque in the bloodstream along the walls of the arteries," explains Dr. Blaha. "This plaque can become disrupted and make it difficult for blood to flow through the arteries and out to the body, which is when strokes or heart attacks can happen." He recommends a diet rich in foods that are high in monounsaturated fats, like avocados and olive oil, or soluble fiber such as broccoli, peas, and legumes. In addition to a healthy diet, he urges the importance of setting aside at least 150 minutes each week to exercise, per the American Heart Association's (AHA) recommendation.

Keep an eye on your cholesterol levels.

Unfortunately, healthy lifestyle choices don't always keep cholesterol numbers at bay, especially for those with genetic markers, notes Dr. Blaha. "The dangerous thing about high cholesterol and plaque building up in the bloodstream along the walls of your arteries is that you can't feel it until it's too late—when the plaque has built up enough to cause a heart attack or stroke," he says. The AHA recommends that adults age 20 and older have their cholesterol checked every year by their primary care physician to monitor their risk.

Have an open dialogue with your doctor about heart health.

"When modifying your lifestyle habits alone isn't enough to keep cholesterol levels in check, your doctor will likely prescribe a class of medicines called statins, which are proven safe and effective in the treatment of high cholesterol," says Dr. Blaha. "Every individual is different, which means every heart health management approach will be different, but having honest conversations with your doctor about your statin therapy, how you are feeling, if you are remembering to take your medication every day, etc., as it is a critical part of achieving lower cholesterol levels."


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