Question: Your child has your nose, your husband’s eyes, and Aunt Pat’s red hair, but why should you care now about your family’s health history, when they seem perfectly fine?
Answer: Many parents are aware of the role genetics play in heart disease, but they usually don’t think about that until their child is older or until there is an emergency.
Knowing your family history not only can help your child lead a healthy lifestyle, it can help you prevent any further progress of your heart disease.
Who’s at risk?
Each year in the United States, more than 600,000 people die from heart disease, according to the American Heart Association.
High cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes, along with lifestyle factors such as an unhealthy diet, lack of exercise, and smoking, can increase the chances of developing heart disease. In addition, having close blood relatives with heart disease can make you more likely to get heart disease.
Just because a child is young doesn’t mean the heart is healthy.
Among the common problems:
Congenital birth defects: Congenital heart defects are the most common type of birth defect in the United States, affecting nearly 40,000 newborns each year. But not all birth defects are detected at the hospital, and what you might view as slow-growth issues for your child, could be related to a heart defect.
Some symptoms to watch for with babies:
- A bluish color to the lips, tongue or nail beds
- Trouble gaining weight
- Rapid or difficulty breathing
- Tiring easily while being fed
Some symptoms to watch for with young children:
- Shortness of breath while playing or being active
- Heart palpitations
- Chest pain
Familial Hypercholesterolemia (FH):
A relatively common genetic disorder is familial hypercholesterolemia (FH), which causes high levels of “bad” cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein, or LDL cholesterol) beginning at birth. About one of 500 people in the United States inherits this condition.
Think about that for a minute – that’s a lot of people in your neighborhood and community who may not be aware that they have FH.
Early detection of this disorder can help reduce the burden of heart disease in the person with hypercholesterolemia as well as in their family members.
Genetic testing to determine personal risk estimates for heart disease may also prove useful. (Check with your doctor for more information, as technology is now making this possible.)
Take action now to prevent issues later
If you have a family health history of heart disease, collect information on your relatives with heart disease, including what age they were diagnosed. This is especially important if you have a parent, brother or sister with heart disease.
Get started with these easy steps:
1. Map out your family’s history with a simple chart that summarizes risk factors associated with both sets of grandparents, your parents, your siblings, you and your spouse, and your children, nieces and nephews. Check off risk factors such as:
- Heart Disease/Heart Attack
- High Blood Pressure
- High Cholesterol
- High Blood Sugar/Diabetes
- Physical Inactivity
- Unhealthy Eating Habits
- Smoking or Exposure to Secondhand Smoke
2. Share this information with your doctor so you can take steps to lower your risk and your child’s chances of getting heart disease.
3. Adjust eating and lifestyle activities to include healthy foods and more physical activity for you and your children. Don’t smoke, be sure to limit your alcohol use and make sure you take advantage of screening tests that your doctor recommends.
If you were adopted, ask your adoptive parents if they have any medical information on your biological parents. The adoption agency also may share some information from their files. An open adoption may mean you can ask your biological family about their health history.
The U.S. Surgeon General’s office has created an Internet-based tool called “My Family Health Portrait” that can help you create your family’s health history.
Once you complete the information, you can download the data and share it with family members. The information is private and confidential. You will have a private login and password. You can find out more at https://familyhistory.hhs.gov/FHH/html/index.html.
Dr. Kris Vijay is the medical director of the Institute for Congestive Heart Failure at Abrazo Arizona Heart Hospital. For more information, visit AbrazoHealth.com. He is also an independent physician and is not an employee, agent or representative of Abrazo Community Health Network. He is solely responsible for the provision of medical services to his patients.