Knowing whether relatives have experienced heart disease can make people more aware of measures that might be needed to prevent or minimize heart disease in themselves. Family history, says The Early Show medical correspondent Dr. Emily Senay said that family history is a determining factor in those who have a propensity to heart disease.
"Research released just this year finds a person with both a first degree relative like a parent or sibling who suffered from heart disease before age 60, and a second degree relative like an aunt, uncle or grandparent with a similar profile, is nearly ten times as likely to suffer from heart disease early in life than someone whose family history includes no heart disease," Dr. Senay said.
A person in that situation needs to get a thorough examination which will check for the other risk factors that contribute to heart disease. That means finding out about cholesterol and blood pressure levels and keeping weight under control.
"If you have a family history of heart disease, getting that information and treating those problems if they exist is something you delay at your own risk," she said.
A person who has a family history of heart disease may receive more intensive treatment than someone without a family history whose risk profile otherwise looks the same, Dr. Senay said.
"For instance, a doctor might ask a person with high cholesterol, but without a family history, to delay cholesterol fighting medication and try diet and exercise first, " she said. "But someone with the family history may be urged to begin statin drugs immediately."
Relatives in one's own generation – especially brothers and sisters – provide even better information about one's risk for heart disease.
"In short, the more family data you have, the better prepared you'll be to protect your heart health," she said.
If the members of previous generations of a family died young and the cause is not necessarily known, Dr. Senay said that people can obtain reletives' medical records from the doctors or hospitals that once treated them.
'It's generally their job not to give information out," Dr. Senay said. "But if you can document your relationship to a past patient, and explain why you want the data, many institutions will cooperate. "
Dr Senay said that families who share a history of heart disease can work together to get healthier.
"You know how hard it can be for people to attain health goals on their own," Dr. Senay said. When relatives support each other, with the goal of family heart health in mind, everyone involved has a better chance to escape, or contain, heart disease.