A doctor prepares to measure a patient's blood pressure.

Does Heart Failure or Hypertension Run in Your Family? 4 Ways to Reduce Your Risk

MAY 31, 2023


You may not think about heart health until you’re seated on the paper-covered exam table at the doctor’s office and that arm cuff is tightening. Your blood pressure numbers are up from last year, slowly creeping into the danger zone. “Do you have a history of hypertension in your family?” the doctor may ask as she glances at your chart.

Is heart failure genetic? When it comes to the health of your heart, knowing your family history can be a powerful tool in staving off conditions like hypertension and heart failure. In this post, we’ll discuss:

  • The hereditary nature of heart failure and hypertension
  • Why it’s important to know your family’s heart health history
  • Four practical tips for decreasing your risk of hypertension and heart failure — even if genetically predisposed

Understanding Increased Risk from Family History

Both high blood pressure (hypertension) and heart failure (HF) are common and increasingly prevalent conditions in the U.S. and around the world. About 6.5 million adults over the age of 20 have HF, and 116 million live with hypertension (that’s 47% of the entire adult population in the U.S.).

While genetics can predispose someone to these conditions, It’s important to know that genetic predisposition does not equal a guaranteed diagnosis. Just because you have a family history of HF or hypertension does not mean you will develop one or both. There are many other factors at play besides genetics, including lifestyle choices, diet and exercise and your own body makeup.

What Does Family History Mean?
According to the CDC, a family history of high blood pressure means “you have someone in your family (a blood relative such as a mother, father, sister or brother) who has or had high blood pressure before the age of 60.” The qualifications for a family history of HF are the same.

Why it’s Important to Know Your Heart Health History

Even though family history is just one piece of your total heart health puzzle, it can be an important one. Being aware of your history can give you and your health care providers a clearer picture of what may be going on in your own body. It can also provide guidance when it comes to what test to get, and when and how to treat symptoms and conditions as they arise.

According to the CDC, those with a family history of hypertension have two times the risk of also developing the disease — and family history of hypertension has been linked to increased chances of heart disease and stroke. In the case of heart failure, studies have shown that genetic factors can play a significant role in the development of the disease, affecting both the likelihood and the age of onset.

If you currently don’t have hypertension or HF, knowing your family history can motivate you to:

  • Take action. Knowing you’re at higher risk for developing HF or hypertension can prompt you to take preventive measures to mitigate your risk.
  • See your doctor. If it’s been a while since you visited your doctor, knowing your history may prompt you to make an appointment to see where you currently stand and make a plan for regular monitoring of blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels going forward.
  • Change your lifestyle. Being aware of your family history can encourage you to adopt heart-healthy habits like regular exercise, a balanced diet and stress management.
  • Share with your family. It can be hard to discuss topics like health history with family members, but starting with your own discovery can open the door to important family conversations. You may even encourage a family member to get checked out as well.

4 Ways to Reduce Your Risk

Even if you have a genetic predisposition to hypertension or HF, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk. Here are four practical things you can start doing now to maintain a healthy heart.

1. Know your numbers. It’s important to know and understand test results when it comes to your heart. The key metric for hypertension is your blood pressure reading. Blood pressure is made up of two numbers: systolic (the pressure in your arteries when your heart beats) and diastolic (the pressure in your arteries when your heart rests between beats).

A normal blood pressure reading is less than 120 (systolic) over 80 (diastolic). A reading above 130/80 is considered hypertensive. The higher the numbers, the more at risk you are for hypertension.

HF is a little trickier to gauge. HF is often assessed using a combination of measurements, such as ejection fraction (EF), a percentage that indicates how well your heart is pumping blood. A normal EF is between 55% and 70%. Lower numbers can indicate heart failure or other heart-related issues.

Unlike blood pressure screening, EF is not a routine part of your typical doctor visit. However, if your provider is concerned about your heart, they may recommend EF along with other tests.

2. Change your lifestyle. One of the best ways to mitigate your risk for hypertension or HF is within your control. A balanced dietregular exercise, and limiting alcohol, drugs and tobacco products have been proven to reduce your risk for heart disease like HF as well as hypertension. And while it may be a simple concept, lifestyle changes aren’t always easy. To increase your chances of success:

  • Track your progress. Keeping a journal or using a mobile app to record your daily activities, such as exercise, food intake and blood pressure readings, can help you visualize your progress and identify areas for improvement. Regularly reviewing your data with your provider can inform your care and treatment plans.
  • Buddy up. Recruit a friend or family member who shares your goals to come along on your health journey. Exercising together and keeping each other accountable can increase your chances of sticking to any changes you make.
  • Set realistic goals. It’s unreasonable to expect to change your habits or practices overnight. Start small and set achievable, specific goals to avoid burning out. If, for example, your objective is to run a 5k, don’t start with a 3-mile run. Instead, make it a goal to jog for a minute without stopping. Realistic, achievable goals help you stay committed and gradually build healthier habits.
  • Ask for help. Don’t know where to start? Consult with your health care provider, a registered dietitian or a certified fitness trainer. These professionals can help you create a personalized plan that takes into consideration your unique circumstances. (Note: It’s always a good idea to check in with your doctor before starting any new eating or exercise plan, especially if you’re being treated for a specific condition.)

3. Take care of your mental health. Stress, anxiety and depression can have a significant impact on heart health. Chronic stress, in particular, has been linked to an increased risk of hypertension. As with lifestyle changes, knowing that stress impacts your heart health and learning to “stress less” are very different.

To reduce your stress levels, start by prioritizing self-care. Find effective stress management techniques that work for you, such as yoga, meditation or deep breathing. You may consider speaking to a mental health professional for support and guidance in learning to stress less.

4. Get regular checkups. If you’re overall pretty healthy, it can be easy to skip out on annual visits with your health care provider — but well checks can help identify problems before they become catastrophic. Early detection of hypertension or heart failure symptoms can significantly affect treatment outcomes.

Discuss family history and any other concerns with your doctor at each visit, and ask for recommendations on how often you should be screened for heart-related issues.

Own Your Heart Health

Even with a genetic predisposition to hypertension or HF, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing these common conditions. By maintaining a healthy heart by knowing your numbers, adopting a heart-healthy lifestyle, and keeping up with regular visits to your provider, you can start to take ownership of your heart health.