“Heart disease” is a term that refers to a group of conditions that affect the heart and its blood vessels. The most common type of heart disease is coronary artery disease.

Heart disease is a serious condition that, if left untreated, can lead to a heart attack, stroke, or heart failure.

If you have a parent, sibling, or another close relative who has heart disease, you might wonder: “Am I at risk, too? Could I already have heart disease? Is a heart attack in my future?”

Read on to learn about your real risk for heart disease and what you can do to lower it.

Having a parent or other close relative who has had a heart attack does increase your risk.

Different types of heart disease run in families. A heart attack is a form of heart disease. In particular, if you have a family history of early heart attack or a heart attack before age 50, you’re at an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

Genes passed down from your biological grandparents to your biological parents to you make you more likely to develop certain types of heart disease.

No single gene causes heart disease. Instead, many different genes work together to determine your risk. Your genes can also make you more likely to develop related heart conditions like high blood pressure and high cholesterol, which contribute to heart disease.

You can inherit genetic heart disease risk factors from either of your biological parents. That’s because you get half of your genes from each parent.

Heart disease isn’t directly inherited from either parent. It’s caused by a combination of changes that occur to many genes, as well as lifestyle factors. This means you can inherit only an increased risk of heart disease, not heart disease itself.

Some hereditary types of heart disease are passed down more directly from biological parents to children through changes to just one or a few genes. These include:

  • hypertrophic cardiomyopathy
  • familial dilated cardiomyopathy
  • familial arrhythmias
  • familial hypercholesterolemia

Many genetic forms of heart disease are inherited in an autosomal dominant pattern. That means if one of your parents has the condition, you have a 50% risk of inheriting it.

You can’t overcome your genetic risk factors for heart disease. However, genes are only part of the picture when it comes to your heart disease risk. You can take steps to manage other heart disease risk factors, such as your lifestyle habits.

A study published in 2016 found that the chance of having a heart attack or stroke was 91% higher in people with a high genetic risk for heart disease than in those with a low genetic risk.

People who had genetic risks were able to lower their odds of a heart attack or stroke by nearly 50% by incorporating at least three of these healthy habits into their lifestyle:

  • not smoking
  • exercising regularly
  • eating a healthy diet
  • staying at a healthy weight

Another way to manage your heart health is to see your doctor regularly to monitor your:

  • blood pressure
  • blood sugar
  • cholesterol

If these numbers are high, taking steps to lower them with diet, exercise, and medication (if needed) can also help you reduce your risk of heart disease.

While healthy lifestyle habits may help prevent certain types of disease, inherited forms of heart disease aren’t preventable. But even if you’re genetically at high risk for an inherited form of heart disease, there are things you can do to protect your heart and prevent complications.

One key factor is to get a diagnosis and begin treatment as soon as possible. Getting early treatment for familial hypercholesterolemia, for example, can lower your risk of coronary artery disease by 80%. If you have hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, avoiding high intensity exercise, alcohol, and cigarettes may help protect your heart.

If one of your biological parents has heart disease yet you’ve prioritized taking good care of your heart health, you may be able to avoid developing certain types of the condition.

However, inherited forms of heart disease pass more easily from one generation to another. If it seems to have skipped a generation, it may just be that someone in your family has the condition but doesn’t have symptoms or hasn’t been tested or received a diagnosis yet.

Sometimes the only way to know whether you are at high genetic risk or have heart disease is to see a doctor for testing.

It’s typical to worry when a parent or other close family member has heart disease. Although family history does increase your risk, most types of heart disease develop from a combination of genes and lifestyle factors.

While you can’t control your genes, you can take steps to protect your heart by eating a healthy diet, exercising, and not smoking.

Some forms of heart disease pass down more directly from biological parents to children. If any type of inherited heart disease runs in your family, contact a cardiologist. Early testing, diagnosis, and treatment could protect your heart and prevent related complications.