Genes and heart attacks: How much do they matter?

By: Jeff VanWormer, former Heart of New Ulm Project Director

It is well known that heart attacks run in families, some more so than others. If your mother or father had a heart attack (particularly if they had it at age 60 years or younger), you are at higher risk for a heart attack as compared to say a neighbor who has no family history of heart disease. Some people take that to mean they drew the genetic “short straw” and are somehow predisposed to a heart attack with little hope of prevention.

The best science to date, however, mostly refutes that. Once you take into account the more traditional risk factors such as older age, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and smoking, the link between specific genes and heart attacks is modest at best. Most scientists agree that about 80 percent or more of all heart attacks that occur before age 80 could be avoided if people had no modifiable risk factors. That means no smoking, no high cholesterol, no high blood pressure, no stress, etc. Imagine a community where people’s habits made heart attacks so rare, children have to talk to their grandparents to meet someone who has had one. That is exactly what we’re aiming for in the Heart of New Ulm Project. 

But hold on, that still leaves as many as 20 percent of all heart attacks yet unexplained. This is where family history of a heart attack indeed still matters. If a blood relative has had a heart attack, it is still a risk factor for you that you can’t change, but a heart attack is NOT a foregone conclusion. It just means that you need to pay a little extra attention to keeping your risk factors in check to minimize that modest risk that potentially comes from your genes. Stay active, eat lots of fruits and vegetables, avoid tobacco, continue to follow-up with your doctor, and keep taking advantage of all the great programs the Heart of New Ulm Project has to offer. That’s a lifestyle everyone can benefit from.