Heart disease risk is based on several factors. Some you can control, like diet, exercise and smoking. Others you can’t control, like age, sex and genetics.
If you’re genetically predisposed to heart disease, are you doomed to have heart problems?
Scientists used to think so, but new research shows even people with high genetic risk for heart disease can lower their overall risk with healthy lifestyle changes.
Genetic differences affect heart disease risk
Most genes are the same in all people, but a small number are slightly different. The genes that are different give people various characteristics.
Some genetic variations, called polymorphisms, affect your risk for heart disease. For example, people with one type of polymorphism tend to have higher LDL cholesterol levels, said Dr. Kelley Anderson, a Marshfield Clinic cardiologist. High LDL cholesterol is strongly associated with heart disease.
There are more than 50 genetic variations associated with heart disease risk. Researchers who studied these genes in about 60,000 people categorized their genetic heart disease risk as low, medium or high based on the polymorphisms they have.
“The difference between low and high risk could be almost double the chance of having a cardiovascular event such as a heart attack,” Anderson said.
Reduce your risk despite your genes
You can’t change your genetic profile, but you can reduce your risk for heart disease even if genetics aren’t on your side.
“Doctors used to think that if you had high genetic risk, you were more likely to have a cardiovascular event and there was nothing you could do about it,” Anderson said.
Researchers tested the idea that you can overcome genetic predisposition for heart disease with a healthy lifestyle. They found people with high risk could lower their overall heart disease risk by 50 percent. People who avoided smoking, maintained a healthy weight, exercised at least once a week and ate a healthy diet reduced their risk the most.
A Mediterranean style diet that focuses on vegetables, fruits, whole-grain foods, legumes and fatty fish (not fried) is a heart-healthy diet. Avoiding foods that have potentially inflammatory effects on the gastrointestinal system – red meat, processed foods, refined carbohydrates and sweetened beverages – that can be absorbed into the body should be minimized. Regular exercise is very important with current guidelines recommending at least 30 minutes a day at least 5 days a week.
Moderation of alcohol is also important. No more than one alcoholic drink per day no more than 5 days a week is a useful guideline.
Even people who had low risk were able to lower it more with healthy lifestyle changes, Anderson said.
Family history doesn’t always mean genetic risk
Genetic testing is the only way to know your genetic risk for heart disease. That’s not done often, but it may be more common in the future.
Family history of heart attacks doesn’t necessarily mean you have high genetic risk.
“There is a modest correlation, but it’s not high,” Anderson said. “You could have no family history of heart problems and still have a high genetic risk.”
However, your doctor can calculate your overall heart disease risk using your health numbers and information about you and your lifestyle.
“Anyone can find out their risk by asking their doctor and anyone can reduce their risk,” Anderson said.
What can a genetic counselor do for you? Meet our team and request an appointment.