A woman and man hold hands as they walk on a sidewalk path.
Just 20 minutes of walking each day can improve your chances of maintaining a healthy heart. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

If heart disease runs in your family, you might live in fear that you, too, face a future of dealing with the disease.

While you do face a higher risk, have hope—there are steps you can take to protect your heart and fight the odds.

“I stress to everyone, regardless of genetics, that just because your parents had a problem doesn’t mean you will,” said Thomas Boyden, MD, who leads Spectrum Health Medical Group’s Preventive Cardiology program. “Is your risk higher? Yes, but you still have the ability to control your destiny. Nothing is more important than lifestyle.”

Heart disease includes a host of problems, many of which are linked to atherosclerosis—the buildup of plaque in the arteries, which makes it harder for blood to flow and can possibly lead to heart attack or stroke. Other heart diseases include congestive heart failure, arrhythmia (abnormal rhythm) and heart valve problems.

Heart disease can be caused by a variety of things, including high blood pressure, which contributes significantly to the risk of developing blocked blood vessels around the heart.

About 610,000 people die of heart disease in the United States each year—or about 1 in 4 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women.

If there’s heart disease in your family, the most important first step is to make sure your doctor has your detailed medical background.

Dr. Boyden said first-degree relatives—your parents and siblings—matter most, although he also wants information about your grandparents as well.

Look for red flags, such as relatives who developed heart disease early, particularly when they didn’t have any known risk factors such as smoking, diabetes or obesity, Dr. Boyden said.

What’s considered early development of heart disease? In men, the risk for heart disease increases starting at age 45, and in women, at age 55. A family history of early heart disease is a risk factor if a father or brother is diagnosed before age 55, or a mother or sister is diagnosed before age 65.

Also important are regular checkups, including basic screenings of blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol.

If you have relatives with high blood pressure and high cholesterol, you are genetically predisposed to the same, but lifestyle factors again play a big role, Dr. Boyden said.

If your screenings show risk factors, your doctor might recommend medication.

“The whole reason we put someone on medication is to lower their risk,” Dr. Boyden said. “High blood pressure is a risk factor for heart attack and stroke, so it’s a risk factor for dying.”

But along with medication, he urges lifestyle changes:

  • Eat healthy—a diet rich in fruits and vegetables
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Get plenty of physical activity
  • Manage stress
  • Quit smoking
  • Get plenty of sleep
  • Avoid too much alcohol

Even small changes can make a difference, especially physical activity, he said.

“Just walking for 20 minutes on a daily basis at a faster pace than normal,” Dr. Boyden said. “You don’t have to do things that push the limits of your physical ability. Just make sure that your cardiovascular system is being worked.”

Dr. Boyden works with patients through the Spectrum Health Medical Group Preventive Cardiology program, which helps people at high risk of heart disease understand what they can can do to prevent it.

The program is recommended for people suffering from chronic conditions such as diabetes, high cholesterol or high blood pressure. Dr. Boyden said he sees patients with “a constellation of risk factors,” sometimes including family history of heart disease.

“Our goal in preventive care is not to have a patient end up in the cath lab with a heart attack,” he said. “My goal, and my hope, is to stop people from getting there in the first place.”

Dr. Boyden urged those with a family history of heart disease to be vigilant and seek help from their doctors—but not to consider heredity a “death sentence.”

“If you choose to do nothing, it might be,” he said.