You can eat healthy foods, exercise and not smoke — but even young, seemingly healthy people can have a stroke or be diagnosed with an inherited cardiac disease.
Why? Because many cardiac disorders are inherited. This means that if people in your family have a history of heart problems, there’s a chance you could, too.
That’s why it’s important to tell your doctor about things like:
- Diseases or conditions that people in your family have, such as blood clots, heart valve disease or irregular heart rhythm
- If your parents or grandparents had a stroke or heart attack
- If your parents or grandparents have been diagnosed with heart disease
- What age they were diagnosed or affected by their heart issues
- If members of your family have risk factors, such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure
We talked to four Sanford Health professionals about inherited cardiac disease, and what they want everyone to know about genetic heart risks.
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Here are excerpts from interviews with:
- Cardiologist Maria Stys, M.D.
- Cardiac genetic counselor Kristen DeBerg, M.S., L.C.G.C.
- Interventional cardiologist Andrew Carter, D.O.
- Cardiovascular surgeon Sean Russell, M.D.
If I feel fine, why should I tell my doctor about heart problems in my family?
Dr. Stys: It’s important for us to know because some inherited cardiac disorders are rare and require very specific therapy. It can affect family members of any age, including children.
By recognizing a disease of the mother, we know that can affect the child. So we try to diagnose family members as well. Because of that, we can prevent people from developing premature cardiovascular issues, like a heart attack or stroke.
Why would I need to meet with a genetic counselor?
DeBerg: If you have a significant family history of heart disease — like cardiomyopathy or an arrhythmia or high cholesterol levels — and the history looks suspicious for a hereditary condition, or if you just have questions about family history, a provider may refer you to a genetic counselor.
Many patients don’t entirely know what will be happening during genetic counseling. A lot of them come in with the assumption that we will be doing genetic testing. But really, genetic counseling is a conversation that happens with the patient.
What we do during a genetic counseling visit is discuss the reason that they’re there, discuss the role of genetics in their family history, and try to figure out if there is a connection between their personal medical history and the possibility for a hereditary condition in the family.
How will a genetic consultation affect my health?
DeBerg: There’s a sense of relief that comes when you’ve figured out the underlying reason for your problems.
What a lot of cardiovascular patients get out of a visit with us is if we are able to determine there is a genetic reason for their condition, a lot of times it can affect their management of the problem.
It’ll help physicians know what type of medications you should be on or avoid, or if there is a certain screening regimen you should be on.
It also helps additional family members to know whether they also could be at risk for the same hereditary condition.
How can a diagnosis of an inherited heart problem help me?
Dr. Carter: Many heart conditions have familial or genetic predisposition. With an ability to identify them early, we can develop an effective medical plan to help prevent the consequences of diseases before they occur.
With a specific diagnosis, we can create a detailed treatment plan for each patient. We have resources available, and advances in heart technology enable treatment options for patients where there are no existing treatment options.
Patients with heart disease need to know about their condition. Heart problems show in many forms, at all ages in life, and they’re not specific to gender or race. It’s important for all of us to know our family heart history, because heart disease is the leading cause of death in this country.
Our main goal is to help people live longer and live better.
What can I do to keep my heart healthy?
Dr. Russell: It’s important to know your risk factors. Diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, smoking, cholesterol, family history — all of these things contribute to heart disease.
Let your doctor know if you have a higher family history of any of these problems. You can mitigate some of those risk factors.
You can treat diabetes, you can get your cholesterol checked, you can stop smoking, you can exercise, you can follow a heart-healthy diet.
If you focus on your risk factors, you can prevent a heart attack or heart damage, and live a long, healthy life.
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