Harvard Heart Letter

Family matters: Your parents' heart health affects yours

Parents pass on many things to their children — genes, love, a taste for certain foods, some habits, and heart attack risk. Yet family history isn't included in the Framingham risk score, a widely used tool for gauging heart attack risk. Intriguing information from the global INTERHEART study suggests that family history — specifically if and at what age a parent had a heart attack — should be used to help calculate a person's chances of having a heart attack.

The INTERHEART investigators asked 12,000 heart attack survivors and an equal number of healthy men and women about their parents' cardiac health. The risk of having a heart attack increased with the number of parents who had one, especially before age 50 (see table). The relationship persisted even after the investigators made adjustments for age, gender, and other factors that are key contributors to cardiovascular risk. Having one parent who had a heart attack after age 50 slightly increased an individual's heart attack risk; having two parents who had attacks before age 50 substantially increased the risk.

Age of parent heart attack




One parent, age 50 or older


One parent, under age 50


Both parents, ages 50 or older


One parent, age 50 or older, and one parent under age 50


Both parents, under age 50


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