Heart Disease: Genetic Risk Factors, Early Symptoms, and Ways to Prevent It

Fact checked by Olga Sadouskaya, MD
Clinical Pharmacologist, Chief Medical Officer

One in four deaths in the United States is due to heart disease. Although the common misconception is that heart disease only affects older adults with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or other risk factors, it can affect anyone.

If you’re like most people, this information can be overwhelming, especially if you’re trying to sort through confusing medical jargon and conflicting recommendations from your doctor. That’s why we are here to answer your questions about heart disease, including genetic risk factors, early symptoms, and ways to prevent it.

Is heart disease hereditary?

Yes, heart disease can be hereditary. Genes play a role in the development of heart disease. Genes are segments of DNA that contain instructions for making proteins in our cells. They are essentially our body’s blueprints, so anything that goes wrong with these instructions can cause problems such as heart disease. These instructions can also be passed down through generations.

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Most people with heart disease have a genetic predisposition to it. They carry one or more gene variants that increase their risk of developing the condition. But having one or two gene variants doesn’t mean you’ll definitely develop coronary artery disease. Lifestyle factors also play a role.

What are the early symptoms of heart disease?

The early symptoms of heart disease are often subtle, but they are important to notice and discuss with your doctor if they persist. Some heart disease early symptoms may include:

  • Chest pain or pressure that lasts more than a few minutes
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Numbness and weakness
  • Sweating or nausea at night
  • Palpitations when you are resting

A common risk factor that has been explored is a heart disease ear crease, also known as Frank’s sign. This diagonal crease in the ear lobe has been associated with coronary artery atherosclerosis, although its diagnostic accuracy is far from sufficient.

Chest pain: Is it heart problems or anxiety?

Many different things can cause chest pain. It can range from mild to severe and may make you feel nervous or worried about what’s causing the pain. If you have chest pain, it’s important to know whether it’s a sign of heart disease, anxiety, or something else. Here’s a quick rundown on what your doctor is likely to ask about your symptoms:

  • Is the pain sharp? Does it persist?
  • Does the pain feel worse when you move around, cough, or take a deep breath?
An older woman with chest pain as one of the early symptoms of heart disease

Anxiety may come with symptoms like feeling like you have a tight chest, numbness, burning, and/or heightened emotions. About 50 percent of the time, patients who report these symptoms are experiencing anxiety instead of heart problems. But since both heart attack pain and anxiety symptoms are similar, it’s best to seek medical help to find the exact cause of your chest pain.

Is heart disease the leading cause of death in the world?

Heart disease is the number one killer worldwide, causing nearly 17.7 million deaths yearly — 18 million in 2019. That’s 31 percent of all global deaths. According to the American Heart Association, nearly 610,000 people in the United States die from cardiovascular diseases yearly. That’s about one in every four deaths.

Ischemic heart disease is the most common heart disease affecting the world today.

According to the World Health Organization, myocardial infarction, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, pneumonia, and Alzheimer’s disease are among the top 10 causes of death globally since 2019.

Where does heart attack pain occur?

Heart attack pain often occurs in the chest area and can be sharp or dull. The location of the pain is usually a little below the breastbone on the left side, but it may be felt over the entire upper body, down one arm, and sometimes into the neck and jaw. The symptoms are variable, but during an attack, you may:

  • Experience discomfort and tightness in the chest
  • Feel pressure in your chest
  • Experience shortness of breath and exhaustion

Is heart disease preventable?

Yes, the good news is that heart disease can be preventable — but only if you know what you’re up against and take steps to protect yourself. The main way to prevent heart disease is to make major lifestyle changes. If you want to reduce your risk of heart disease, here are some things you can do:

  • Get active every day. If possible, make sure that physical activity becomes part of your daily routine. Moving around for just 30 minutes a day will help keep blood flowing through your body and help prevent heart disease.
  • Choose a healthy diet. The first step to preventing heart disease is to eat a healthy diet. This means eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, and lean meats.
Healthy dishes as one of the ways to prevent heart disease
  • Stop smoking. Smoking increases your chance of developing heart and lung problems by damaging the lining of your arteries and making them more likely to become clogged with plaque.
  • Control your weight. Being overweight or obese increases your risk of developing type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol — both major risk factors for heart disease and stroke.

How is heart disease diagnosed?

When diagnosing heart disease, your doctor will first check your medical history and conduct a physical examination. They will want to know about any symptoms you have, such as chest pain or shortness of breath.

The doctor may also want to know about any family history of heart disease or other illnesses.

After this, the next diagnostic step is an ECG or cardiac MRI. An ECG records the electrical activity inside the heart, which can help your doctor find problems with the electrical system in your heart. Other diagnostic tests include:

  • Stress tests
  • CT scans
  • Blood tests
  • CT coronary angiogram

Is heart disease curable?

Heart disease can be treated with medications, surgery, or both. Medications are often used first because they are less invasive than surgery and can often control the symptoms of the disease for quite some time. Medications are often prescribed to lower blood pressure, reduce cholesterol levels, and prevent blood clots that can lead to heart attacks. These medications may be combined with lifestyle changes to improve long-term outcomes.


Heart disease can be deadly, but there are ways to prevent and treat it. If you think you have heart problems, make sure to talk to your doctor. If you have questions about heart disease, it’s good to get them answered by a professional. Nobody knows your body as well as you do, so use that knowledge to your advantage. Don’t rely solely on what you hear or read — get the facts straight from a doctor. Your health depends on it.

March 1, 2023