Science - December 9, 2011

Heart problems in parents can predict risks in children

Children whose parents have heart or vascular diseases before age seventy have a slightly higher risk of getting the same. This rationale makes it easier to predict who is eligible for preventive measures.

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This discovery was made by Ineke van Dis, administrative officer in the Dutch Heart Association and researcher in the Department of Human Biology, by monitoring a large number of test persons for ten years after they had undergone a medical check-up. She is due to receive her PhD on Wednesday 14 December for this study.
Van Dis used the MORGEN-study of the National Institute for Public Healthy and the Environment (RIVM) for her research. More than 23,000 people were involved in this between 1993 and 1997. They gave blood and talked about their life-style and medical family history. Ten thousand of them were between the ages of 40 and 65 during the study. Van Dis looked at how many of them had to be hospitalized or had died of heart and vascular diseases within ten years.
Unlucky ones
The test persons without a family history appeared to have a 7.8 percent chance of getting heart and vascular diseases. Van Dis defined this term broadly and also included, for example, heart failures and chest pains (angina pectoris). For the test persons with an afflicted father or mother, this percentage went up to 9.8 and 10.7 respectively. The 434 unlucky ones with two sick or deceased parents had a 12 percent risk. Furthermore, the younger the parents were when they became sick or died, the bigger the risk factor.
Risk chart
Van Dis used her results to construct better risk charts. Doctors use these to determine who is eligible for lifestyle advice and preventive medication. 'You can use family history information to retrieve 2 to 3 percent more future patients from the danger pool,' says Van Dis. The results correspond generally to the conclusions of earlier research, which had only found a link in heart and vascular diseases at younger ages.
Genes
The results do not show clearly if the difference is caused by genes or life-styles. Van Dis tested this by compensating for factors such as smoking, education level and body weight, but the figures hardly changed. Even corrections for blood pressure and cholesterol could not explain the difference. 'There could be a strong genetic component at play here,' says Van Dis. 'Or an interaction between genes and environment.'

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