Do you remember the story about the three little pigs? One little pig built his house out of straw, one built his house out of sticks and one used bricks. I bet you never knew that this story was really about genetics!
Your genetic makeup is like an architectural blueprint for a building. We each have our own unique blueprint that dictates how our house (our body) gets built. And although the specifications are fairly scripted, how those specifications are interpreted and acted upon will determine the long-term resilience and longevity of the structure.
The three little pigs all had the same blueprint instruction: Build a house. But each pig chose different raw materials with very different results. If you build your home with inferior materials, you will have more maintenance problems and the home will not last as long as it would have had you used superior materials and careful craftsmanship. Likewise for the same genetic code (identical twins, for example) — health outcomes can be very different, depending on individual lifestyle choices.
Because family history can be such an important predictive factor for your own health, it is imperative that you take the time to find out as much as you can about the health of your relatives — your blood relatives. From a heart perspective, you are interested in finding out whether anyone in your family (your brothers, sisters, parents, cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents) ever had a heart attack, stroke, angioplasty, bypass surgery or aneurysm. If any of those relatives have passed away, you should try to find out approximately how old they were when they died and the cause of death.
If the relatives with heart disease were younger (especially male relatives with heart disease before the age of 55 and female relatives with heart disease before the age of 65) or if multiple relatives developed heart disease regardless of their ages, you really need to get more information — about your relatives and about yourself.
Try to obtain information about the risk factors of your relatives with the heart disease. Were they diabetic? Did they smoke? Did they have high blood pressure or high cholesterol? And was the diagnosis of heart disease actually confirmed or was it presumed?
For yourself, find out your prevention status and what you can do to improve your chances, that is, what you can do to build a better building despite the flawed plans you were handed. This is where knowing your numbers (your cholesterol, your blood pressure, your blood sugar) is imperative - and keeping yourself (and your physician) on task to optimize all those numbers becomes incredibly important. I’m not implying that if you don’t have a family history you get to be a slacker about prevention efforts. But if anyone needs to be almost obsessed with this stuff, it’s the person with a strong family history of heart disease.