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Is Heart Disease Hereditary?

a doctor checking old man's heart beat

When I talk to a patient about changing his or her lifestyle, the initial response is often something like this: “There’s really nothing I can do about it. Heart disease runs in my family.”

Of course, family history does play a role. But one of the most important findings of the last year is that changing to a heart-healthy lifestyle can absolutely overcome what’s in your genes.

One study that helped confirm this idea involved 20,771 Swedish men between the ages of 45 and 70, all of whom completed a detailed questionnaire and were followed for 11 years.

When the study began, none of the men had a history of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol. Over the 11-year period of the study, 1,361 of the men suffered heart attacks. They were most likely to be those who ate poorly, exercised little, smoked, and drank too much alcohol.

The least likely to suffer a heart attack were the men whose lifestyle included the following healthy habits:

  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Drinking moderately
  • Never smoking
  • Exercising moderately (such as walking or biking) 40 minutes a day and vigorously one hour or more a week
  • Maintaining a healthy waistline measurement (about 37.4 inches or less)

Even though only 1 percent of the men (about 212) met all five criteria, the more they followed, the less likely they would be stricken.

In fact, the researchers estimated that 4 out of 5 heart attacks could be prevented by sticking to these tenets of a healthy lifestyle.

Another study, also conducted in Sweden, looked not at heart attacks, but at strokes — the other devastating outcome of cardiovascular disease.

This study also involved women rather than men. Researchers evaluated 32,000 women with an average age of 60 for about 10 years. At the end of this time, the researchers found the women with the lowest stroke risk were those who had roughly the same five heart-healthy lifestyle features.

Of all the participants, about 1,500 reported none of the healthy habits, while 589 practiced all five. Most women had two or three.

As with the study on men, the more healthy habits a woman followed the less likely she was to suffer a stroke.

So the message is loud and clear: A healthy lifestyle reduces the risk of cardiovascular diseases, most notably heart attack and stroke — the nation’s number one and number three killers, respectively.

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