If your family has a history of heart problems and you're wondering if these issues are hereditary, you may be on the right track. Scientists now know that several common cardiac disorders may be inherited. But what does that mean for you? Should you undergo genetic testing to learn if you're at higher risk for elevated cholesterol levels or even a heart attack?
What Is an Inherited Cardiac Disorder?
Any health condition that is passed from parent to child because of a gene mutation is considered hereditary, and researchers have identified several heart disorders that genetics cause. According to the British Heart Foundation, these cardiovascular conditions usually fall into three broad categories:
- Inherited heart-rhythm disorders. These disorders affect the manner in which the heart beats. A genetic anomaly can either slow the heart rate or cause the heart to beat very fast. These conditions include long QT syndrome (LQTS), Brugada syndrome, catecholaminergic polymorphic ventricular tachycardia (CPVT), and progressive cardiac conduction defect (PCCD).
- Inherited cardiomyopathies. A gene defect can cause the heart muscle to become weak or thick. These changes in the muscle tissue cause problems with heart contraction and lead to inherited cardiac disorders such as dilated cardiomyopathy, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, and arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy.
- Inherited cholesterol problems. Most cases of high cholesterol do not derive from faulty genes, but from high cholesterol that runs in families. These can be traced to a specific gene mutation called familial hypercholesterolemia.
How Are Inherited Cardiac Disorders Diagnosed?
Because certain heart disorders are hereditary, you may think that genetic testing holds the key to diagnosis and treatment. In most cases, however, that's not how it works.
The most important piece of the diagnostic puzzle may lie in your family history. Ask your parents, grandparents, brothers, and sisters about any health problems, then tell your doctor about conditions that show up in multiple family members. You don't need to dig deep: Doctors often discount disease processes that occurred more than two generations ago because medicine and lifestyle were so different then, so you can safely start with a recent history and go from there.
Your doctor will use your family medical history in conjunction with modern diagnostic tools to determine whether you have an inherited cardiac disorder. Genetic heart rhythm disorders are diagnosed using an electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) test, and inherited cardiomyopathies may be diagnosed using minimally invasive methods such as echocardiogram or cardiac catheterization to view the structure of the organ. High cholesterol levels that run in your family and defy lifestyle interventions, such as a change in diet and increase in exercise, likely will be classified as hereditary with no further testing involved.
Early Diagnosis Can Save Your Life
Because some genetic heart problems can cause sudden death, early diagnosis is crucial. If your family exhibits a history of heart problems, be sure to provide your doctor (and your children's pediatrician) with a solid family history. When inherited cardiac disorders are diagnosed early, they can be treated or monitored. These early interventions may help you live a long, healthy life, no matter what your DNA says.