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My father had a stroke at 40. Should I be worried? Add to ...

The question

I’m a fairly active man in my late 20s and I do my best to eat well but I’ve been worried about my heart since my father had a stroke at age 40. Am I likely to suffer serious heart problems at such a young age too?

The answer

It is excellent that you are eating well, keeping active and have an awareness of your potential risk for heart disease or stroke. Your concern is a valid one as a family history of a first-degree relative with coronary heart disease or stroke before the age of 55 (for a male relative) or 65 (for a female relative) puts you at higher risk of heart disease in the future.

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This does not mean, however, that you are predestined to have the same outcome as your father.

The first thing you should do is find out if your father had any other risk factors that help explain why he had a stroke at such a young age.

The good news is that 80 per cent of heart disease cases and strokes are preventable. But only some of the risk factors are modifiable.

In addition to a family history of heart disease, other risk factors that we can’t change include:

Age

As we get older, our risk of heart disease increases.

Gender

Men have a higher risk of heart disease than premenopausal women. Past menopause, the risk equalizes.

Ethnicity

People with African, Asian or Latin American ancestry are at a higher risk of developing heart disease than other racial groups.

But there are a number of factors that are within your control, and can be modified and ultimately help you fight off heart disease. These include:

Physical inactivity and obesity

Maintaining a healthy body weight by including regular fitness activities into your life can help decrease your risk of heart disease.

Blood pressure

Over time, high blood pressure can damage your circulatory system and increase your chances of heart disease.

Cholesterol

High cholesterol (low density lipoprotein) and triglycerides, and low “good cholesterol” (high density lipoprotein) can increase your risk.

Diabetes

Increasingly common in Canada, people with diabetes have double the risk of heart disease compared with non-diabetic people.

Smoking

All of its forms (chewing tobacco, second-had smoke etc.) will increase your risk. There is also a correlation between when you started smoking and your risk: The earlier you started, the higher the risk. However, quitting smoking – no matter how long you have smoked – will decrease your risk significantly.

Stress and/or depression

Chronic stress, social isolation, anxiety and depression increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.

While it can cause concern to know that you have a family history of stroke at a young age, this increased awareness can motivate you to be aware of the risk factors you can control.

By knowing your numbers (blood pressure, cholesterol, weight), being aware of your risk factors and making healthy choices, you can significantly decrease your risk.

Send family doctor Sheila Wijayasinghe your questions at doctor@globeandmail.com. She will answer select questions, which could appear in The Globe and Mail and/or on The Globe and Mail web site. Your name will not be published if your question is chosen.

Read more Q&As from Dr. Wijayasinghe.

Click here to see Q&As from all of our health experts.

The content provided in The Globe and Mail's Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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