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All in the Family: 3 Common Inherited Heart Diseases

"You look like your dad but you have your mother’s eyes."women in family heart

"Your quirky sense of humor definitely came from your grandfather."

"You’re so nice. It must come from me."

We love to talk about the good traits that are passed from generation to generation.

However, when it comes to more serious concerns, such as heart disease, we tend to assume that lifestyle habits are the cause. And while this is sometimes the case, there are other times when it may be genetic, passed down from parents to children.

Certain heart diseases can be passed down genetically. If you know about your risk ahead of time, you may be able to get ahead of the problem, before it causes symptoms or becomes dangerous. Here are 3 common heart diseases that can be inherited from one generation to the next.

1. Familial Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy 

Familial hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is a fairly common inherited heart condition that can affect people of any age. This disease can thicken part or all of the heart muscle. In extreme cases, it can even cause sudden death.

The thickening often happens in the interventricular septum –– the wall that separates the left and right ventricles (the two lower chambers of the heart). This can prevent proper blood flow from the heart and force the heart to pump harder than it should.

This thickening can also give the left ventricle less room to hold blood, which can raise pressure inside that chamber. When this happens, you may feel short of breath. You may also be at risk for abnormal heart rhythms.

Symptoms of familial hypertrophic cardiomyopathy can vary among family members. For instance, your dad may experience chest pain, but you may have mild palpitations. You might not even have any symptoms at all.

This difference in symptoms can be dangerous because you might not attribute your symptoms to your family history of this disease, which can cause you to delay seeking medical help.

Fortunately, getting medical help early on can help prevent the disease from progressing or causing complications, and manage symptoms.

Treatment may include:

  • Lifestyle changes, such as weight loss and eating a healthy diet.
  • Medications, such as those to regulate heart function and rhythm, reduce swelling, and prevent blood clots.
  • Surgical and nonsurgical procedures: These can include implanting devices to treat abnormal heart rhythms, surgery to remove part of the thickened heart muscle, ablation to treat arrhythmia, or even a heart transplant.

inherited heart disease

2. Familial Dilated Cardiomyopathy

While hypertrophic cardiomyopathy causes the heart muscle to thicken, the opposite is true of dilated cardiomyopathy: the heart muscle becomes thin and weak. 

This disease can affect both sides of the heart. As the muscle stretches, the affected chamber becomes enlarged, making blood pump less efficiently. This can lead to heart failure — a condition where the heart can’t pump blood to keep up with the needs of the body.

Familial dilated cardiomyopathy can cause symptoms such as irregular heartbeat, fatigue, shortness of breath, fainting, or swelling of the abdomen and legs. Some people don’t notice any symptoms at all. Unnoticed symptoms can become a major problem — if familial dilated cardiomyopathy goes undiagnosed and is left untreated, it can lead to heart failure and early death. 

As with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, treatment for dilated cardiomyopathy is meant to manage symptoms, prevent the condition from worsening, and protect you from life-threatening complications.

If you have one or more relatives who have been diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy without a known cause, or if you have a first-degree relative who died inexplicably and suddenly before the age of 35, you are at higher risk and should talk to your physician about undergoing screening for this condition. 

3. Familial Hypercholesterolemia

Cholesterol is a fat like substance in every cell in your body. Your body needs some cholesterol, but too much can accumulate in your body, especially low-density lipoproteins (LDL) — the bad cholesterol. This narrows arteries, either partially or completely blocking blood flow.

Familial hypercholesterolemia is an inherited cause of coronary heart disease. If left untreated, you can have a stroke or suffer from a heart attack. 

If you have familial hypercholesterolemia, your LDL is very high (above 190 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL)). 

If your high cholesterol is caused by genetics, symptoms can begin at a very young age. Some people have a heart attack as early as 20 years of age. 

People often associate high cholesterol with an unhealthy lifestyle –– greasy food, lack of exercise, and smoking. The role of genetics is often overlooked. In the case of familial hypercholesterolemia, a healthy lifestyle alone probably can’t bring your LDL down. You will need to work with your provider to manage it, which may include taking medications. 

About this Blog

The Penn Heart and Vascular blog provides the latest information on heart disease prevention, nutrition and breakthroughs in cardiovascular care.


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