Just as your genes define your outer appearance, they also influence your heart and cardiovascular system. Some heart conditions can be influenced by lifestyle habits like poor diet, smoking, and physical inactivity, but others are inherited or have a genetic component.
Many inherited conditions fall into three broad categories:
- Rhythm conditions: Problems with your heart beat
- Cardiomyopathies: Problems with the heart muscle
- High cholesterol levels that can increase the risk of coronary artery disease
Beyond these categories, other inherited conditions include abnormalities of the aorta and blood vessels — such as conditions like Marfan syndrome, Loeys-Dietz syndrome, pulmonary arterial hypertension — and familial amyloidosis.
For some, finding out they have an inherited cardiac disease can lead to concern or confusion – especially if family members could be impacted, too. Let’s address some of the most common misconceptions about inherited cardiac disease.
Myth 1: Genetics Are Always More Important Than Lifestyle
Many types of heart disease are genetically passed from parent to child, but lifestyle habits can also play a role.
For example, one of the treatment approaches for hypertrophic cardiomyopathy – a condition that results in thickening and stiffness of the heart muscle – involves making lifestyle changes, such as maintaining a healthy body weight and eating a heart-healthy diet.
For all individuals with inherited conditions, it’s important to live a heart-healthy lifestyle. Getting proper rest, exercise and nourishment affects overall quality of life and can reduce the likelihood of another serious heart condition.
Myth 2: Lifestyle Is Always More Important Than Genetics
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is important to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, but for individuals with inherited cardiac diseases, additional testing and treatments are often indicated.
Treatment depends on the condition and your unique circumstances. The goal of any treatment is to relieve symptoms, prevent life-threatening complications, and empower you to understand your condition and take control of your health.
Your cardiologist can explain treatment options specific to your condition, including:
- Surgeries or other procedures
- New treatments available through clinical trials
At-risk family members should be considered, too. Parents, siblings and children can receive genetic counseling and educational sessions to understand the impact of a hereditary heart condition and complete genetic testing if recommended by the care team.
Myth 3: All Inherited Cardiac Diseases Cause Noticeable Symptoms
Many inherited cardiac conditions do cause symptoms, but not all individuals have symptoms. Symptoms vary by condition and from person to person but may include:
- Shortness of breath, especially while exercising
- Chest pain, especially while exercising
- Heart palpitations
- Dizziness or fainting
Symptoms may be subtle for one person and more pronounced for someone else – even for the same condition in the same family. Your treatment team can help you understand the symptoms to watch out for.
Myth 4: I’m Not at Risk for an Inherited Cardiac Disease
Many people who come to Penn’s Center for Inherited Cardiac Disease are the first in their family to learn about a hereditary condition. Although it’s likely their condition is shared by someone in their family tree, it can be hard to trace. This can happen if family members with the disease:
- Passed away before diagnosis
- Were not recognized as having a genetic condition
- Did not discuss their condition or were not in contact with family members
Even if you aren’t aware of anybody in your family with an inherited condition, you may still be at risk. That’s why accurate testing and a thorough evaluation of your family history are key.
It’s also important to talk to your family members about your family’s heart health. Be sure to ask about people who passed away, too. Write down the information you gather and bring it with you to appointments with your cardiologist.
Myth 5: Inherited Cardiac Diseases Can Skip a Generation
Genetic conditions can have the appearance of “skipping” a generation if an individual in a family has the genetic condition but doesn’t know it or doesn’t have symptoms.
Because genetic conditions can impact everyone in a family, it’s important to have a doctor evaluate other family members when anyone in a family is diagnosed with an inherited cardiac disease.
In addition to providing exceptional care, Penn’s Center for Inherited Cardiac Disease offers testing and genetic counseling for families. Our genetic counselors will work with you and your family to understand who should have genetic testing and how to understand your test results. We make it as easy as possible to schedule and align visits to ensure a family-based, comprehensive approach.