Most people whose coronary arteries are blocked show no symptoms. They feel great, do things healthy people do and take it for granted that their hearts are healthy – until a fatal heart attack occurs.

Your family history and your genes could give you a few important clues as to whether you could be heading for a heart attack.

Genes and your heart

A handful of genes play a role in the health of your heart, and can have an impact on the treatment that’s best for you.

Knowing a patient’s genes is akin to a doctor donning new glasses that enable him to see right into your cells so he can choose the correct “medicine”. Statins, the group of cholesterol-lowering drugs, may be able to save the life of someone who has one type of heart gene but be of little use to someone who has another type. A diet low in trans fats and saturated fats produces significant results in the second instance.

Some of the most important heart genes discovered so far are the fumarate hydratase (FH) and ApoE4 genes, as well as the thrombosis risk factor and the iron overload gene. If you have a defective FH gene, for instance, your chances of suffering a heart attack are five to 10 times higher than anyone else’s.  On average, men who have a defective FH gene suffer a heart attack by the age of 45 and die if they don’t receive the right treatment.

Most affected people don't realise they have these genes nor that certain factors can switch them on. The changes in the arteries happen unnoticed.

Who can benefit from a heart gene test?

For some people, getting a genetic test can be useful. While it’s certainly not necessary for all people to have their heart genes tested, it can assist the following people so that the correct treatment can be given in time:

    • People who have a personal or family history of heart problems.

    • People with a family history of Alzheimer's disease, since this illness is linked to heart genes.

    • People who have a personal or family history of venous thrombosis, women who have repeatedly suffered miscarriages and women who are considering hormone replacement therapy.

Ten ways to avoid a heart attack

If you were born with “bad” heart genes, you can prevent them from being “switched on”. On the other hand, if you were born with “good” heart genes, you can protect your coronary arteries from being damaged by changing some of your habits.

Here is your nine-point plan, compiled from information collected by Harvard University researchers and heart specialists at the Mayo Clinic in the US:

    1. If you smoke, stop immediately. This applies whether you smoke cigars, regular cigarettes or low-tar or “light” cigarettes.  Smoking is one of the main factors that can switch on all high-risk heart genes. Smoke also damages the inside walls of blood vessels so badly it can lead to artery blockage. If you stop smoking your risk of a heart attack decreases within three years. Smokers older than 60 can add five to seven years to their life by giving up smoking. Passive smoking is also an important risk factor.

    1. Exercise. It has at least 20 health benefits. Exercise strengthens and opens the heart arteries, serves as a destressor and combats weight gain. Keeping fit can reduce your risk of heart disease by a third. Being unfit is even more dangerous for your heart than being overweight. Try to exercise for at least two hours a week.

    1. Control your weight. The fatter your get, the thicker the layer of fat around your heart and other organs. People who have an apple-shaped body – those guys sporting a paunch – run a greater risk for heart disease than people with a pear-shaped body.

    1. Get into the habit early on, of eating only foods low in saturated or trans fats. This will prevent a certain heart gene from being switched on.

    1. Eat fish and other foods rich in omega-3 fats at least three times a week. Choose Atlantic and Australian salmon, blue-eye trevalla, blue mackerel, gemfish, canned sardines and canned salmon. These “good” fats can decrease your risk of blood clots and deep-vein thrombosis. What’s more, they satisfy your appetite more quickly.

    1. If you aren't eating the recommended weekly allowance of fatty fish, supplement your diet with an omega-3 supplement.  Calamari, fish and krill oil all provide omega-3 fatty acids.  Calamari oil is the newest supplement available and boasts the highest levels of heart health DHA.

    1. Eat more fresh vegetables and fruit, especially citrus fruit, spinach and other green leafy vegetables that are high in vitamin B and folic acid. This helps to protect the hearts of those with very high cholesterol. (Someone who has already had a heart attack or who suffers from diabetes will not benefit from folic acid taken in the form of supplements.)

    1. Eat more high-fibre foods such as oats porridge. Ten grams of rough fibre a day can reduce your risk of a heart attack by 20%.

    1. Know your counts and keep them in check. If you can lower your blood pressure from 140/90 Hg to 120/80 Hg you will halve your risk of having a stroke. For every fraction your bad LDL cholesterol level is lowered your risk of a heart attack decreases too. If the side effects of one type of blood pressure medicine bother you, speak to your doctor about trying another. Don’t simply stop taking your medicine.

    1. Learn to handle stress. It seems ongoing stress eventually causers the blood vessel walls to become more susceptible to damage.

Image via Thinkstock