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People often think they can prevent heart failure by eating healthy and exercising. Often, that is true. However, some people cannot prevent heart failure with lifestyle choices alone. For some people, it is due to a problem with one of their genes. Genes carry information that determines which characteristics are inherited or passed down. Problems with genes can be passed down too. The good news is that genetic tests exist to detect the kind of heart failure that runs in families.
This may come as a surprise. Many people know that genetic tests for breast cancer and sickle cell disease exist. Most don’t realize they also exist for heart disease, but they do, and the results can help to keep you and your loved one’s health.
A good first step to determine if heart failure runs in your family is to think about your family tree. Ask yourself, “Did anyone in my family have a heart issue or need a heart transplant?” Think about if anyone in your family died from a heart problem at a young age. Also, don't limit your thinking to your immediate family. Think about your mom and dad, any siblings and your extended family. Consider your aunts and uncles and cousins. As you build your family tree, talk to your family members. These conversations can help you figure out if genetic heart failure may run in your family.
Also talk to your doctor. They will connect you with a specialized care team, including a trained genetic counselor, who will help identify if genetic testing makes sense for you. The counselor will support you from start to finish and beyond.
Once you have had a genetic test, you may be saying, "Now what?" Your care team will work with you and your family to walk through your results. If your result is positive, it doesn’t guarantee that you will develop heart failure. If your result is negative, it doesn’t guarantee that won’t develop heart failure in the future. Your care team will help you figure out the best way to watch for heart failure in either case.
If you are diagnosed with the type of heart failure that runs in families, your care team can discuss treatment options with you. They will also help you talk to your family members about what your results might mean for them. They can provide guidance to other family members who should consider genetic testing. Science is evolving and we are still trying to understand all the causes of heart failure. Your care team can keep track of changes in screening or treatment recommendations.
Genetic testing can be scary, but the results can help you stay healthy by detecting problems early. Plus, they may help prevent future complications for you and your loved ones. If you think heart disease may run in your family, remember the steps outlined here as a starting point.
Visit the HFSA Patient Hub to explore tools and resources to help patients stay healthy while living with heart failure.
View Heart Failure Awareness 365 activities to stay up-to-date on tips for healthy living for people living with heart failure.