Searching for a genetic ‘tattletale’ for heart attack risk

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If you want a sneak peek into your risk of heart disease, here are your options: Your doctor can measure cholesterol and blood pressure, ask about history of smoking and diabetes, and consider age and gender. For the 50-plus crowd, this approach works well, but these traditional risk factors don’t account for heart attacks in those who are younger.

That answer could lie in our genes. When it comes to health risks, genes are major tattletales.

Until recently, individual genes have dominated the conversation. Breast cancer is probably the best-known example. The wrong change, or variant, in the BRCA1 or 2 gene could raise the risk of breast cancer to up to 65 percent for women 70 years old. Heart disease has its own version of BRCA: Variants in any one of three specific genes can raise cholesterol dangerously high. These mutations are fairly rare, though, occurring in about 1 in 250 people.

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The mutations also don’t explain why some men and women with normal cholesterol levels have heart attacks — particularly those in their 20s, 30s or 40s, who would normally be considered low risk. …

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In the near future, it will be possible to turn one blood test into a health report card for most complex diseases.

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