Health Matters: Heart Health: A Family Matter


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By Benita Philip, DO

When you fill out your annual medical history forms at the doctor’s office, it may seem like a formality.

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However, the reality is that along with information about your personal health, details about your family’s health history play an important role in your healthcare.

And when it comes to heart disease, understanding your family’s health history can provide hints about your own heart health.

Common Heart Conditions

Heart disease is a broad term that includes many types of heart conditions.

It is the leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2020, an estimated 697,000 Americans died from heart disease.

Some of the most common heart conditions are:

• Coronary artery disease, which is almost always the result of cholesterol build-up that narrows the arteries and impedes their ability to supply the heart with ample blood, oxygen, and nutrients. Decreased blood flow can lead to a heart attack. Heart attacks also happen when a part of the heart muscle does not get enough blood supply.

• Arrhythmias or irregular heart rhythms. Heart rhythms can be too slow or too fast. In some cases, these irregularities can put you at risk for sudden cardiac death.

• Congestive heart failure. Heart failure does not mean the heart has stopped, but that the heart cannot pump efficiently enough to meet the body’s needs. People with this serious disorder experience a buildup of fluid in the lungs, liver, legs or abdomen.

• Cardiomyopathy, which can affect the heart muscle and cause it to become enlarged, stiff or thick. Sometimes the inefficient heart muscle may weaken over time or cause you to develop heart failure, leading to the buildup of fluid in your body.

Symptoms of Heart Disease

There are several signs of heart disease to watch for, such as:

• Chest discomfort. This can include pain, pressure, or tightness and may be accompanied by dizziness or lightheadedness; nausea; breaking out in a cold sweat; pain that radiates to the back neck or jaw; and shortness of breath.
• Unusual fatigue and the inability to do daily activities.
• Difficulty sleeping.
• Fluid retention and swelling in the legs or ankles.
These symptoms should be taken seriously because they may be warning signs of an imminent heart attack or another heart-related complication.

If you think you may be having a heart attack, call 9-1-1 immediately.

Family History a Key Risk Factor

If anyone in your family — including parents, siblings, grandparents, even aunts and uncles — has a history of heart disease, you too may be at risk.

That is why it is so important to tell your doctor if anyone in your family has ever experienced a stroke, heart attack, heart failure, coronary artery disease, arrhythmia, valve disease, aneurysm, sudden cardiac death or other heart-related condition.

The more detail you can provide about your family health history, the better your doctor can understand and manage your risk.

Keep in mind that family members share more than genetic characteristics. They may also share environments, lifestyles, and even personal habits that can affect their heart health.

In addition to family history, other risk factors for heart disease include:

• High blood pressure.
• High blood cholesterol.
• Smoking.
• Diabetes.
• Being overweight or obese.
• Unhealthy diet.
• Physical inactivity.
• Excessive alcohol use.

Stay Heart Healthy

While you cannot change your genetics, there are many steps you can take.

• Eat a healthy diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, fiber-rich whole grains, fish, nuts, legumes, and seeds. Choose lower fat dairy products and foods low in saturated fat, trans fat and sodium. Limit red meat and sugar, including sweetened beverages.

• Exercise regularly. The American Heart Association recommends getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity per week, or a combination of both, preferably spread throughout the week.

• Do not smoke and avoid secondhand smoke. The dangers of smoking are well known. Even exposure to secondhand smoke increases a person’s risk of heart disease or lung cancers.

• Manage stress. Sustained stress increases heart rate and blood pressure and can damage artery walls. Learn tips for managing stress including mindfulness, breathing exercises, or making time for hobbies and activities you enjoy.

• Talk with your doctor. Schedule a routine physical each year and have your blood pressure and blood sugar level checked. Talk with your doctor about additional tests or concerns, including if you snore to rule out sleep disorders such as sleep apnea.

Penn Medicine Princeton Medical Center (PMC) has earned the American Heart Association’s Get With The Guidelines®–Heart Failure Gold Plus Quality Achievement Award, signifying its commitment to providing consistent, quality care aligned with the latest evidence-based guidelines.

Additionally, U.S. News & World Report has rated PMC as high performing in heart failure treatment for eight years in a row.

To find a physician affiliated with Penn Medicine Princeton Health, call 888-742-7496, or visit

Benita Philip, DO, specializes in cardiovascular disease and is a member of the Penn Medicine Princeton Health Medical Staff.




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