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Does heart disease run in your family?

Wanda Jackson says she spent years as a caregiver for her mother and other family members before suffering her own heart attack at the age of 40. (WTOP/Paula Wolfson)

WASHINGTON – For women of all ages, the key to a healthy heart may be in their genes.

Doctors say diet is important, as is exercise. But they stress heart problems can run in families, and women need to know about their gene pool and take that information very seriously.

Washington cardiologist Susan Bennett said women often think they are going to be just like their moms.

“They can sometimes ignore the fact that their father had a heart attack at 50,” Bennett said.

The bottom line is that both parents can pass on an increased risk, she said.

“If your mom has had a heart attack before the age of 65, or your dad has had a heart attack before the age of 55, that doubles your risk right there,” said Bennett, who is affiliated with Medstar/Washington Hospital Center.

If both parents had cardiovascular problems at a young age, the risk triples.

She said women need to get as complete a picture as possible, and pass the family’s heart health history on to their doctors. This is especially important for younger women, who may not show any of the classic symptoms of heart disease.

Wanda Jackson of Forestville, Md., never drew a link between her family history and her own heart health.

“I definitely had a strong family history of a lot of risk factors, but none of that hit or rang a bell for me,” she said.

Her mother had a stroke when Jackson was only 10, and both her parents had hypertension. Jackson says she spent years as a caregiver for her mother and other family members before suffering her own heart attack at the age of 40.

For Gail Harris-Barry of Hyattsville, Md., the risk factors were almost entirely on her father’s side of the family.

Doctors couldn’t figure out what was going on when she arrived at an emergency room with chest pain because her blood pressure and cholesterol were fine.

Her heart problems proved to be totally hereditary. Most of the men on her father’s side had died young, and her dad had a quadruple bypass six months earlier at the very same hospital where she was treated.

“These are the things too many women tend to ignore,” Harris-Barry said. “We look at it from our mom’s genes… but you have got to look at your total picture.”

Bennett advises people not to be reluctant to ask their parents detailed questions about the family’s health history.

“It’s kind of frightening to know the specifics sometimes, but it is very, very important in order to know your risk,” she said.

Editor’s Note: Throughout February, WTOP will be focusing on women’s heart health, with information on prevention, treatment and reasons for hope. We also will bring you the incredible stories of survivors from the region — a sisterhood of women celebrating a second chance at life with a commitment to help others.

WTOP’s Paula Wolfson contributed to this report. Follow WTOP on Twitter.

(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

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