Heart disease is a serious health condition. It’s the leading cause of death for people in the United States. In fact, in 2020, 1 out of every 5 deaths in the United States resulted from heart disease.

Some heart disease risk factors are out of your control, like your age or family history. You can manage others, like your diet or activity level. Following a heart-healthy lifestyle and monitoring your health could help protect your heart.

Here are 10 things you can do if you have a family history of heart disease in order to help prevent a heart attack or stroke.

Some types of heart disease are caused by an issue with one or more of your genes. The following types of heart disease can be inherited or passed down through families:

  • certain arrhythmias, like long QT syndrome
  • certain cardiomyopathies, like hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and arrhythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia
  • familial hypercholesterolemia

It’s important to know your family health history and share it with your doctor. Ask your relatives whether they have heart disease and at what age they received a diagnosis or experienced a cardiac event.

Also be sure to tell your doctor about any family members who passed away suddenly, including from things like car accidents or drowning, which can be related to sudden cardiac death.

Then consider your own heart disease risk factors, which include:

  • your age
  • your biological sex
  • your race
  • your weight
  • your cholesterol levels
  • your blood pressure level
  • whether you have type 2 diabetes
  • whether you smoke
  • whether you drink alcohol, and if so, how much you drink

Once you know your risks, you can discuss them with your primary care doctor or cardiologist.

Genetic testing is available for some inherited forms of heart disease, including cardiomyopathy and arrhythmias. These tests use a sample of your blood or saliva to detect the gene mutations that cause these conditions.

Your doctor might recommend genetic testing if you have symptoms of an inherited heart disease or family members with a heart condition. The results of your tests will help determine whether you need to think about treatment.

A genetic counselor can help you understand your family medical history and genetic test results. They can also explain your risk of passing heart disease to your children.

Heart-healthy eating can reduce your odds of developing heart disease, even if you’re at high risk because of your family history. Some diets are better for your heart than others. Foods that are high in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sugar, and salt contribute to heart disease.

These foods are better for your heart:

  • fruits and vegetables
  • whole grains like oats, barley, brown rice, and quinoa
  • fish
  • low fat dairy
  • nuts and seeds
  • oils lower in saturated fat, such as olive and canola oil

A few diet plans that include these foods have been shown to promote heart health, including the:

  • Mediterranean diet
  • DASH diet
  • vegetarian and vegan diets
  • TLC diet

Exercise can help combat the risks of inherited heart disease. A large 2018 study in the United Kingdom found that people who were more physically active were less likely to have a heart attack or stroke, even if they had a genetic risk for heart disease.

Physical activity protects the heart by:

  • lowering blood pressure
  • bringing down LDL (“bad”) cholesterol
  • helping you lose weight
  • helping your cells use insulin more efficiently

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends getting 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of high intensity aerobic exercise each week.

Strength training helps your heart, too. One study showed that doing less than an hour of weightlifting per week was associated with a 40% to 70% lower risk for heart attack or stroke.

Excess weight harms your heart in a few ways. For one, it can speed up the buildup of plaques that clog arteries. Being very overweight also contributes to heart disease risks, such as:

  • high LDL cholesterol
  • high triglycerides
  • high blood pressure
  • type 2 diabetes
  • obstructive sleep apnea

The ideal body mass index (BMI) is 25, according to the AHA. Diet and exercise can help bring your BMI into a healthy range. If lifestyle changes alone don’t help and your BMI is 40 or higher, bariatric surgery is another way to reduce your heart disease risks.

Smoking is one of the biggest threats to your health. It’s responsible for about a third of all heart disease deaths. The more you smoke and the longer you keep smoking, the greater your heart disease risk rises.

Cigarette smoke contains thousands of chemicals, some of which damage your heart and blood vessels. Secondhand smoke, as well as other nicotine products like e-cigarettes and vaping, are also harmful to the heart.

If you smoke, quitting comes with quick rewards. Your heart disease risk will start to drop as soon as you stop smoking. Within a year after quitting, your odds of having a heart attack will drop significantly.

To get help quitting, talk with your doctor or visit smokefree.gov.

You might have read that alcohol is good for your heart. Yet there are more risks to drinking than there are benefits, especially if you drink excessively.

According to the AHA, drinking too much alcohol contributes to:

  • high blood pressure
  • high triglycerides
  • cardiomyopathy
  • arrhythmia

Ask your doctor whether it’s safe for you to drink at all if heart disease runs in your family. For people at average risk, drinking may be acceptable, as long as it’s done in moderation (one drink per day for women, two for men).

People who get too little sleep have more health concerns, like high blood pressure and obesity, that increase their risk for heart disease, the AHA says.

Snoring and having trouble sleeping could be signs of a sleep condition like insomnia or sleep apnea. Both of these sleep conditions are linked to heart disease.

Sleeping well might help offset your family history of heart disease.

In one study from 2020, people who were genetically susceptible to heart disease but slept for 7 to 8 hours a night had lower heart disease risks than those with the same genetic risks who slept poorly.

Here are a few tips to help you get more sleep:

  • Go to bed at the same time each night and wake up at the same time each morning.
  • Keep your bedroom dark, cool, and quiet.
  • Stop eating and drinking a few hours before bedtime.
  • Exercise in the morning or early afternoon.

High blood pressure, high cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes are all linked to heart disease. You can manage these conditions better by keeping track of your weight and these other important health measures:

  • total, HDL, and LDL cholesterol
  • blood pressure
  • triglycerides
  • blood sugar

You can weigh yourself and check your blood pressure periodically at home. Your doctor can check your cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood sugar with a simple blood test. If any of your numbers are high, you can take steps to manage them.

Inherited heart disease doesn’t always cause symptoms. Seeing your primary care doctor or cardiologist for routine check-ups will help you find and treat heart disease early, before it can cause long-term concerns.

Having a family history of heart disease puts you at increased risk, too.

One way to protect your heart is by keeping track of your blood pressure, cholesterol, and other numbers. Then work with your doctor to incorporate heart-healthy lifestyle changes like diet and exercise into your routine.