(Don’t) Be Still, My Beating Heart

Valentine’s Day has come and gone, but it doesn’t mean we stop talking about hearts! February is Heart Month, which makes it a perfect time to discuss heart health and how genetic counseling and DNA testing might help you understand your chance of heart disease.

Helping everyone get connected to reliable information to understand DNA testing - whether for ancestry purposes or medical - is a central goal of my blog, so I’m taking a detour from my recent posts on family matching surprises to visit this DNA health topic. This posts kicks off a three-part series on DNA and heart health. Part one will cover the basics before we dive further into genetic counseling and at-home tests and third party reports that give information related to cardiovascular issues.

Our genetics can contribute to a chance for heart issues, but it’s not the only factor. Read on to learn more!

First, The facts


·      Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both women and men in America.

·      46% of U.S. adults are estimated to have hypertension, or high blood pressure.

·      80% of premature cases (< age 65 for women and < 55 for men) of heart disease and strokes are preventable (CDC).

* Unless otherwise noted, all facts are reported in Circulation, a scientific journal published for the American Heart Association (AHA).

What can I do to reduce my risk of heart disease?

1.    Eat a heart-healthy diet. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends a diet high in fruits and whole grains and low in added salt and sugars. Read more about the heart-healthy diet and lifestyle recommended by the AHA here.

2.    Maintain a healthy blood pressure. High blood pressure can strain the heart muscle, making it pump less efficiently. The AHA recommends a systolic pressure <120 and a diastolic pressure <80. A systolic pressure of 130-139 or a diastolic pressure of 80-89 is considered Stage 1 Hypertension.

3.    Maintain healthy cholesterol levels. High levels of blood cholesterol can increase the risk of heart disease, but not all cholesterol is created equal. LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol promotes atherosclerosis (fat-clogged arteries), while HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol helps clean up LDL. Read more about maintaining healthy cholesterol levels here.

4.    Get active! For adults, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity, 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity, or a combination of the two, per week. Muscle-training is also recommended twice a week. For children (ages 6-17), the Department recommends 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity, including muscle-building activity, every day.

5.    Don’t smoke. Nicotine raises blood pressure and pulse rate, increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke (Mishra et al. 2015).

6.    Take prescribed medication. Medicines like statins lower cholesterol, reducing the risk of heart disease. Aspirin can help prevent blood clots, which may lower the risk of heart attack. Read more about heart disease prevention and management medicines here, but be sure to talk to a health care professional before making decisions regarding medication.

A lot of these things are choice-based. What about things you can’t control, like your genetics, for example?

The next post in this series (coming next week) will talk more about how genetics influence heart disease and how genetic counselors can help.