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Aug 22, 2011

Family History of Heart Attack and Stroke: What's the risk?

People are more likely to inherit increased risk for heart attack than stroke from family members.

When determining a patient’s risk for cardiovascular disease and cardiac events such as heart attack and stroke, physicians first look at the patient’s overall health, considering biometrics like weight, cholesterol and blood pressure. They also consider family medical history, as genetics can also contribute to risk for various cardiovascular conditions. But how strongly does family history affect risk for heart attack?

Surprisingly, a recent study published in Circulation, a journal of the American Heart Association, reported that people are more likely to inherit increased risk for heart attack than for stroke from family members — an important finding that may influence future cardiovascular health risk assessments. This study was conducted in England and included over 2,000 patients who had suffered from heart attack, stroke or transient ischemic attack (mini-stroke). Researchers collected data from patients regarding health and family medical history, and found that siblings with one parent that had experienced a heart attack were 48% more likely to have one. Those with two parents with history of heart attack were nearly 6 times more likely to have a heart attack. Researcher also found that the correlation between family history and risk for stroke was much weaker. Those with parents that had experienced stroke were not at significantly increased risk of stroke.

Researchers speculate that family history is not as strongly associated with increased risk for stroke because stroke reflects thromboembolism and small-vessel disease rather than heart disease. Heart attack, on the other hand, most often results from heart disease and the build-up of plaque in the arteries — conditions that may be more likely to be inherited than risk for stroke. Based on findings, family medical history may no longer be lumped together in assessing risk for heart attack and stroke, as inherited risk is different for each.

Questions for You to Consider

  • How is risk affected when there is a family history of stroke?

  • Research suggests that risk for heart attack is more likely to be inherited than risk for stroke. Although risk for stroke did increase in some with family history of stroke, this association was not technically significant in this study.
  • What are the risk factors for heart attack and stroke?

  • Heart attack and stroke share many of the same risk factors, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, overweight or obesity, smoking, excessive drinking, and physical inactivity. Risk for both also increases with age.

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