Ask Your Family About Heart Disease

Knowing your family’s heart disease risk empowers you to take action to improve heart health today

Family talking to a doctor

Knowing what you may be carrying in your genes could literally save your or a family member’s life, including your child’s life. Tying into the message of American Heart Month, which just passed, now’s a good time to explore your family’s history of heart disease to not delay prevention any further. Maybe your partner’s great-uncle died of sudden cardiac arrest, or your cousin has cardiomyopathy. This knowledge can help you take action to promote good health for your family.

Unsure where to start? Beth Kaufman, MD, director of the Pediatric Inherited Cardiovascular Disorders program at Stanford Medicine Children’s Health, shares her knowledge and tips on how you can talk with your family about heart disease.

“Knowing your risk for heart disease is the first step to be proactive about your and your child’s health,” says Dr. Kaufman.

Here are some key questions to consider when talking with your family about heart disease:

  • Is there a history of high blood pressure? What about a history of high cholesterol/lipid disorders or diabetes?
  • Have members of your family—going back generations—faced a heart attack/cardiac arrest, coronary thrombosis (blood clot formed in a blood vessel or heart artery), stroke, or aneurysm? Finding out at what age major medical events happened to your family members is key in helping doctors assess your/your child’s potential risk for heart disease. When major heart events happen before the age of 50, it can indicate a family history of heart disease.
  • Has anyone in your immediate or extended family been diagnosed with heart rhythm irregularities (arrhythmia)? Heart palpitations or unexplained fainting episodes can indicate an abnormal heart rhythm.
  • Anyone diagnosed with an enlarged heart or heart failure, or in need of a heart transplant?
  • What about heart defects present at birth/CHD (congenital heart defect)?
  • Were there any unexplained deaths or sudden deaths in your family?
  • Are you aware of any genetic health problems that impact your family?
  • It may also be helpful to ask your relatives and/or your partner’s family if there are family members who have undergone treatments or procedures for their hearts, and if so, at what age. For example, did anyone need a heart surgery, a pacemaker, or an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) for heart rhythm problems? How about treatment for coronary artery disease, including stents or bypass surgery at a young age (younger than 50)? These procedures could be clues that heart disease may impact other family members down the road, including your children.

“Knowing your and your child’s heart disease risk enables early detection and action, such as living a heart-healthy lifestyle and getting regular checkups, which can help avoid a more serious outcome later,” Dr. Kaufman says.

After you talk with your family, if you suspect that you or your child may be at risk of developing heart disease, ask your doctor about getting appropriate screenings for your child or children and your whole family. When possible, gather medical records, especially of anyone who died suddenly, and bring them to the appointment with your family doctor or an adult or pediatric cardiologist.

“I would urge that your family, including your child/children, get a cardiac screening when you suspect that you/your family members may be at risk of heart disease. In cases where inherited heart conditions such as arrhythmia and cardiomyopathy are discovered early, one has a higher chance to change the course of their condition and its manifestation. Remember, some heart diseases are asymptomatic—there can be no symptoms for a long time,” Dr. Kaufman says.

Within the dedicated Pediatric Inherited Cardiovascular Disorders program at Stanford Medicine Children’s Health, children and their families can receive in-depth genetic testing and counseling for common to rare inherited heart diseases, followed by highly specialized heart care. Diagnosis and care are provided in collaboration with heart and other pediatric specialists at Stanford Children’s Health and with the adult providers at Stanford Health Care.

“Becoming knowledgeable about your and your child’s risk for cardiovascular disorder enables early detection and a more effective treatment approach,” Dr. Kaufman says.

If you or your child have had any heart events or received a heart condition diagnosis yourselves, make sure to share this health history with all of your relatives, including siblings, cousins, other children, and grandchildren. It’s an important way to help your children and extended family be proactive about heart disease. 

Learn more about our approach to inherited cardiovascular disease at Stanford Children’s >


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