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Heart Health: A Family Affair

Family Focus: Value of Personalized, Preventive Healthcare

Family is enormously important in Joseph Flanagan’s world. His father was one of six sons. His mother is one of seven. Flanagan himself has five siblings, and he and his wife have five children. Thirty members of the Flanagan clan recently traveled together for a family vacation.

Now this close-knit family has a new, shared mission. It revolves around their health and identifying common genetic factors that predispose them to cardiovascular disease. Flanagan’s paternal grandfather died of a heart attack at the age of 47, and three of his dad’s brothers died prematurely from coronary disease.

“My dad is the oldest living Flanagan male at 77,” he said. The family always thought that some of the uncles probably did not take great care of themselves. But then tragedy struck the next generation, when a cousin suffered a serious cardiac event at age 47 and another died of cardiac arrest at age 53.

The Power of Genomics

Hoping to change the course of his family’s health history, Flanagan turned to NorthShore’s new Mark R. Neaman Center for Personalized Medicine, which customizes patient care and treatment based on an individual’s unique genetic characteristics and health history. Flanagan decided it was time for his family to learn more about what they could do to cut their risk factors for serious illness.

“The first step was to test one person from each family,” explained NorthShore Cardiologist David Davidson, MD, who has specialized expertise and board certification in lipidology—or managing cholesterol. Joseph Flanagan was the first to undergo blood tests, and Dr. Davidson was able to quickly identify a fairly common genetic abnormality called lipoprotein(a) or LP(a)—which creates bad cholesterol more prone to forming coronary blockages.

“When you look at a normal cholesterol panel, the numbers might not look that bad. But with this genetic factor and a family history, it needs to be more aggressively treated,” said Dr. Davidson. Testing of additional family members revealed that Flanagan’s brothers also carry the same LP(a) genetic mutation. “Dr. Davidson said this is likely the gene that contributed to our uncles’ shortened lives,” Flanagan recalled. “We’re trying to learn from the past generation.”

Targeted, Preventive Strategies

A former college basketball player, 51-year-old Flanagan already had fairly healthy habits, exercising several times a week and eating a reasonably healthy diet. Dr. Davidson conducted several more tests, including a cardiac ultrasound, to rule out any immediate problems and develop a baseline to measure against. Based on that data, he increased the statins (cholesterol-lowering drugs) Flanagan was on, prescribed some supplements and offered personalized dietary recommendations.

One by one, Dr. Davidson is now addressing each Flanagan family member’s risk factors and treating them with personalized and specific treatments including medication, dosage and dietary changes. “The more you can get rid of the bad cholesterol, the less chance of it attaching and blocking arteries,” he added.

“Across our family, we started sharing our medical tests, and all the boys have this gene, which gives us a higher risk,” noted Flanagan. “We can all lose a little weight, and we’re trying to eat as healthy as we can and exercise more. I really like Dr. Davidson’s measured approach. He’s not judgmental, and he’s practical about his recommendations and talking to us about eating better. We’re all embracing this together.”

Flanagan is hoping his cousins will embrace the process, too, and ultimately he and his siblings will involve their children as well. “Without NorthShore’s focus on Personalized Medicine, this wouldn’t have happened,” said Flanagan. “It’s amazing seeing the power of this all integrated with my family. We have built our own little health community.”

Unique Capabilities

NorthShore’s level of expertise in developing and interpreting advanced blood tests and other data is part of what sets the Neaman Center for Personalized Medicine program apart. But it is much more than simply expanded genetic insight. An array of NorthShore physician experts—from cardiology to neurology to cancer care—are advancing the science of genomics and quickly translating it into improved patient care and outcomes.

“There are so many people who can benefit,” Dr. Davidson said. “The so-called ‘walking well’ who want to be more proactive about their health can take advantage of this uniquely personal genetic information and make minor lifestyle tweaks that will improve their health and cut potential risk factors.”

Education is another important component in Dr. Davidson’s patient care. “There’s still a huge knowledge gap. For example, many people may think they’re eating healthy but are quite surprised to learn what they should really be eating,” he said.

 Dr. Davidson’s commitment to cardiac health is a personal one. “Heart disease also runs in my family. I’m named after my grandfather who died of a heart attack at 47, and that’s a daily reminder of the importance of cardiac risk management.”

“This is a game changer for our family. We’re learning in our 40s and 50s, but we’ll get the next generation involved and they’ll learn how to better manage their health in their 20s,” said Flanagan.