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Knowing your family heart health history can save lives

Black patients diagnosed with the heart condition dilated cardiomyopathy, of unknown cause, are more likely to have family members at risk.

CLEVELAND — It's Black History Month, and while every family should discuss their family history, don't forget to discuss the family health history, as well, especially when it comes to heart health.   

Researchers at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center studied the prevalence and risk of familial dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) in Black and white patients as well as their family members, noting most studies have included only whites even though Blacks with DCM have a higher risk of heart failure-related hospitalization and death. Researchers believe most of idiopathic (unknown cause) DCM has a genetic basis.

Using mathematical modeling techniques, researchers estimated 30% of patients with DCM seen at a typical advanced heart failure programs in the U.S. had at least one first-degree family member (child, sibling, or parent) with the disease. When broken down by self-identified race, an estimated 39% of Black patients and 28% of white patients had at least one first-degree family member with DCM. The study was published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

"Integrating Black families into this DCM study was critically important, because most information has only been available for white patients," Dr. Ray Hershberger, a cardiologist and division director of human genetics at the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center and a researcher at the Dorothy M. Davis Heart and Lung Research Institute, told 3News. "Our study shows that families of Black patients are at greater risk for DCM than those of white patients. We don't yet understand all of the reasons for this — it could be from differences in genetics, comorbidities or social determinants of health. This analysis — which only included clinical information — was unable to clarify that, but the genetic analysis being completed now will soon be available."

DCM can occur in family members at almost any age but the typical onset is mid-40s. The severity of the condition can also vary within families, with some exhibiting minor symptoms while others may die of heart failure or an arrhythmia causing sudden cardiac death. Symptoms include shortness of breath with exertion, fatigue, edema of the legs and feet, an irregular heartbeat, or lethal arrhythmias.

The study estimated that about one in five first-degree family members of patients with idiopathic DCM were at risk of getting the condition during their lifetime.


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