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Systematic Review of Methods and Results of Studies of the Genetic Epidemiology of Ischemic Stroke

Originally published 2004;35:212–227


Background and Purpose— To design appropriate molecular genetic studies, we first need to understand the genetic epidemiology of stroke. We therefore performed a systematic review of the literature to assess the heritability of stroke according to methodological quality of studies and to determine any heterogeneity in findings between studies and possible publication bias.

Methods— We searched for twin studies and studies of family history of stroke using bibliographic databases and by hand-searching reference lists and journals. Odds ratios (ORs) for family history as a risk factor for stroke were calculated within studies and combined by meta-analysis. Heterogeneity between studies, methodological quality of studies, and the influence of the age at which stroke occurred in both probands and relatives were assessed.

Results— We identified 53 independent studies (3 twin, 33 case-control, and 17 cohort). Monozygotic twins were more likely to be concordant than dizygotic twins (OR, 1.65; 95% CI, 1.2 to 2.3; P=0.003). A positive family history was a risk factor for stroke in both case-control (OR, 1.76; 95% CI, 1.7 to 1.9; P<0.00001) and cohort (OR, 1.30; 95% CI, 1.2 to 1.5; P<0.00001) studies. However, there was major heterogeneity between studies (cohort P=0.0001; case-control P<0.00001), with much stronger associations in small studies and methodologically less rigorous studies. Moreover, studies that reported insufficient data to allow meta-analysis tended to have found weaker associations. Family history of stroke was more frequent in studies that were confined to probands or relatives aged <70 years. However, few studies considered the number of affected and unaffected relatives, only 2 studies considered stroke phenotypes in detail, and only 19 studies (38%) adjusted associations for intermediate phenotypes. No twin study, only 5 cohort studies (26%), and 20 case-control studies (61%) differentiated between ischemic and hemorrhagic stroke in the proband. Family history of stroke was more frequent in large- and small-vessel stroke than in cardioembolic stroke. There were very few data on the influence of family history on stroke severity and no data on stroke recovery.

Conclusions— Twin studies suggest a small genetic contribution to stroke, but reliable interpretation of published family history studies is undermined by major heterogeneity, insufficient detail, and potential publication and reporting bias. More detailed large-scale genetic epidemiology is required.

Afamily history of stroke is regarded as an important risk factor for the development of cerebrovascular disease, and strokes cluster in families.1 Animal models suggest that susceptibility to ischemic stroke is influenced by genetic factors,2 and there are a number of rare mendelian stroke syndromes in humans.3,4 However, several dozen candidate gene studies have produced no consistent results, and data on the genetic epidemiology of stroke are conflicting.4–6 One reason for this is that although ischemic stroke is a highly complex trait, few studies have assessed stroke subtypes, and no studies have been properly powered to do so. Moreover, many studies have combined ischemic and hemorrhagic strokes. It is unlikely that these very different pathological conditions are under the same genetic influences. Of equal importance, little account has been taken of the role of intermediate phenotypes (eg, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, diabetes, carotid stenosis), many of which have a substantial genetic component themselves. Furthermore, a positive family history could be the result of shared genes, shared environment, or both.

Several genome screens and other detailed molecular genetic studies of ischemic stroke are planned. However, if these are to be properly targeted, it is essential that we first understand the basic genetic epidemiology. Recent reviews of the genetics of ischemic stroke have not sought to be systematic and have cited only 11 to 16 family history studies and 1 twin study.4–6 We performed a systematic review of all published twin studies and studies of family history as a risk factor for stroke. We sought to estimate effect sizes, to determine the extent of heterogeneity in the strength of associations between studies, and to explain any differences by assessing the quality of studies, searching for possible publication bias, and exploring whether effects varied between stroke subtypes, age of stroke onset in probands and relatives, and the presence of intermediate phenotypes.

Materials and Methods

Search Strategy

We sought to identify articles that reported on family history as a potential risk factor for stroke. Studies were identified by 2 independent observers from MEDLINE+ and EMBASE (Silverplatter Winspirs 4.0 online and Entrez PubMed NIH 06/08/2001 for 1966 to May 2003) with the following search terms: family history AND (stroke OR CVA OR TIA OR cerebrovascular) and twin AND (stroke OR CVA OR TIA OR cerebrovascular). No restriction was made on the language of publication. Journals that yielded >10% of all studies identified electronically were systematically hand-searched for further relevant studies published after 1980. The reference lists of all articles that met the inclusion criteria were searched. We contacted authors personally if their publications were unavailable in the United Kingdom.

Inclusion Criteria

Articles were included in the review if they fulfilled the following criteria: (1) study was a prospective cohort, case-control, or twin study; and (2) study reported on the frequency of a positive family history of stroke for patients with stroke and a control group for case-control studies, or the risk of stroke (either undifferentiated or ischemic) in patients with and without a positive family history of stroke for prospective cohort studies, or the concordance for stroke in monozygotic versus dizygotic twins.

Data Extraction

The following data were extracted from eligible reports by 2 independent observers with a structured questionnaire: (1) type of study (case-control, cohort, or twin); (2) setting (hospital or population based); (3) length of follow-up (for cohort studies); (4) details of patient selection (Were patients recruited consecutively or by type of stroke? Were patients with transient ischemic attack [TIA] or subarachnoid hemorrhage included?); (5) details of collected family history (Did studies also collect information on family history of ischemic heart disease, hypertension, peripheral vascular disease, TIA, or diabetes mellitus? Were only fatal events included? Which relatives were included in a positive family history? Were the age and number of affected relatives and the size of the family taken into account? What method was used to collect a family history?); (6) details of stroke classification in patients (ischemic versus hemorrhagic; subtyping of ischemic strokes according to the TOAST7 [or similar] criteria); (7) consideration of whether other potential risk factors (age at event, personal history of hypertension, diabetes mellitus, ischemic heart disease, peripheral vascular disease, carotid disease, cardioembolism, smoking, cholesterol, alcohol consumption, body mass index, use of hormone replacement therapy and/or oral contraceptive pill, social class/education, employment status, marital status, amount of exercise) collected and related to the presence of family history of stroke; (8) results and conclusion of each study (Was a positive family history found to be a risk factor for stroke? If so, was there a difference for the various stroke subtypes? Was a positive family history associated with any confounders or established risk factors or environmental factors? Did the study correct for these potential confounders? Did the study consider genetic versus environmental factors in a positive family history?); and (9) consideration of whether studies collected information on the influence of family history of stroke on stroke severity and recovery.

Studies that gave absolute numbers for patients with family history of stroke were identified. Only patients with ischemic stroke were counted if the subtypes were differentiated. A parental family history of stroke was used for the meta-analysis in which family history was reported separately for whether strokes had occurred in parents or siblings and in which it was not possible to derive an overall estimate for family history in first-degree relatives (FDR).

Statistical Analysis

Odds for a positive family history as a risk factor for stroke were calculated within individual studies. Where appropriate, odds ratios (ORs) from separate studies were combined by fixed-effects meta-analysis according to the Mantel-Haenszel method. Heterogeneity between studies was calculated with the χ2 method. The possibility of publication bias was assessed by checking funnel plots of the inverse standard error (precision) of studies versus the OR for asymmetry and by simple linear regression analysis of the standard normal deviate (lnOR/SE) versus precision (1/SE). The predicted regression line assuming no bias was compared with the actual simple regression fit (P<0.10 was regarded as significant).8 Both cohort and case-control studies measure the odds of stroke that are conferred by a positive family history of stroke. We therefore tested for potential publication bias of both study types individually and combined.

We predefined a simple score to assess the methodological quality of studies, giving 1 point each if a study (1) recruited patients consecutively; (2) defined the relatives who contributed to the family history; (3) separated family histories of stroke, hypertension, or myocardial infarction (MI); (4) took the age of onset of stroke in relatives into account; (5) took the number of affected relatives into account; (6) distinguished between ischemic and hemorrhagic strokes; and (7) subtyped ischemic strokes by etiology. Studies were then stratified into 3 strata if they met <3, 3 to 5, and ≥6 quality criteria. Heterogeneity of OR estimates between the resulting strata was calculated. To detect heterogeneity in relation to the power of studies, we stratified them into tertiles according to the inverse of their standard errors. A possible correlation between study quality and precision was also tested for by the rank correlation test of Spearman.

To identify other sources of heterogeneity, year of publication (divided into studies published before and after 1990), type of study (prospective cohort or case-control), median age of subjects, maximum age of subjects, maximum age of relatives, whether hemorrhagic strokes were included or not, and family history of fatal stroke only were tested versus the natural logarithm of the OR weighted by the inverse variance.


The electronic literature search yielded 889 publications with the search terms family history AND (stroke OR CVA OR TIA OR cerebrovascular) and 105 publications for the search terms twin AND (stroke OR CVA OR TIA OR cerebrovascular). Duplicate records were removed, and abstracts were reviewed. Ninety-seven publications were judged potentially relevant by 1 or both observers. Review of reference lists of these articles and a hand-search of the journal Stroke for the years 1980–2003, which was the only journal that met the criteria for hand-searching, yielded an additional 127 publications. Thus, a total of 224 articles (9 in languages other than English) were considered in detail. Two of the articles were published in Spanish, 2 in Italian, 2 in German, and 1 each in Russian, Chinese, and Hungarian.

Sixty publications satisfied our inclusion criteria. They consisted of 3 twin studies that investigated the concordance of stroke in monozygotic versus dizygotic twins (1 group published a follow-up report on their original article as an abstract),9–12 19 articles that published data on 17 independent cohort studies,13–28,65–67 and 37 articles that published data on 33 independent case-control studies.29–64,68 Of these, 9 cohort studies15,18,20,22–25,28,66 and 6 case-control studies33,34,36,40,43,54 only reported relative risks or ORs and gave no absolute numbers and therefore could not be included in any meta-analysis. However, details of these studies are given in Table 1. Thus, 3 twin studies,9–12 9 cohort studies,* and 27 case-control studies reported sufficient data to allow inclusion in the meta-analysis. One additional cohort study was not included because outcome strokes in probands were defined only as MRI evidence of infarction without data on clinical stroke outcomes.69

TABLE 1. Characteristics and Results of Cohort and Case-Control Studies Not Included in the Formal Meta-Analysis

StudyCohort TypeCountrySubjects, nAge, yLength of Follow-Up, yFHx of Event
TIA indicates transient ischemic attack; sibs, siblings; FHx, family history; N/A, not applicable; FDR, first-degree relatives; SD, standard deviation; SDR, second-degree relatives; MI, myocardial infarction; RR, relative risk; MRR, multivariate adjusted relative risk; HTN, hypertension; OR, odds ratio; IHD, ischemic heart disease; DM, diabetes mellitus; PVD, peripheral vascular disease; SAH, subarachnoid hemorrhage; ICH, intracerebral hemorrhage; CI, cerebral infarction; Cnsct, patients were recruited consecutively.
A. Prospective cohort studies
    Sesso et al 200122ProfessionalUSA22071 M 39876 F40–84 M ≥45 F13 M 6.2 FMI
    Voko et al 200025PopulationNetherlands7603??Stroke
    Menotti, Giampaoli 199820PopulationItaly152740–5935MI, HTN, DM
    Simons et al (1998)24PopulationAustralia2805>60?IHD
    Kiely et al (1993)18PopulationUSA(1) 4933 parents30–6236Fatal stroke
(2) 2317 offspring of parents in (1)>3016Stroke or TIA
Stroke or TIA or IHD
(3) 604 sibships of subjects in (2)Stroke or TIA
    Shaper et al (1991)23CommunityEngland773540–598Fatal stroke, IHD
    Harmsen et al (1990)15 (cf Wilhelmsen [1990])28CommunitySweden749547–5511.8Stroke
    Wilhelmsen (1990)28Birth65–7512Stroke
    Okada et al (1976)66CommunityJapan473740–797Stroke, HTN, IHD
StudySettingCountryCnsctNo. of Patients/ ControlsAge, yFHx of EventRelativesDifferentiation of Strokes
B. Case-control studies
    Becher et al (2000)33HospitalGermany?197/19765 (22–80)StrokeFDRIschemic
    Halim et al (1998)43?USA??>39StrokeFDRIschemic
    Carrieri et al (1994)36HospitalItalyYes164/16440–75StrokeNot definedIschemic
    Bharucha et al (1988)34PopulationIndiaYes111/111?StrokeFDRIschemic
    Marshall (1971)54HospitalEngland?201/national mortality statistics?Fatal strokeParents, siblingsNonembolic ischemic
    Gertler et al (1968)40HospitalUSAYes185/?62 ±13Stroke, IHD, HTN, DMParents, siblingsUndifferentiated

TABLE 1. Continued

RelativesDifferentiation of OutcomesResult
ParentsUndifferentiatedM, MRR 1.03 (0.67–1.60); F, MRR 1.45 (0.80–2.62)
FDRUndifferentiatedAdjusted: (1 FDR) RR 1.3 (1.0–1.64)
(>1 FDR) RR 1.5 (1.0–2.4), (one FDR <65) RR 1.6 (1.1–2.2), (>1 FDR <65) RR 2.0 (0.6–6.4)
ParentsFatalNo significant association for either FHx
UnspecifiedIschemic or fatalNo influence
ParentsUndifferentiatedCrude RR 1.07 (0.89–1.28), adjusted (age, sex) RR 1.06 (0.88–1.27), multivariate RR 0.99 (0.82–1.19)
ParentsUndifferentiatedCrude RR 1.9 (0.95–3.74), adjusted (age, sex) RR 1.68 (0.85–3.33), multivariate RR 1.56 (0.76–3.19)
ParentsUndifferentiatedCrude RR 3.6 (1.49–8.67), adjusted (age, sex) RR 2.99 (1.23–7.26), multivariate RR 3.33 (1.27–8.72)
SiblingsUndifferentiatedSibship size adjust. RR 1.50 (0.80–2.82), adjusted (age+sex) RR 1.23 (0.66–2.32), MRR 1.19 (0.61–2.32)
SiblingsAtherothromboticSibship size adjust. RR 3.39 (1.41–8.16), adjusted (age+sex) RR 2.52 (1.05–4.94), MRR 1.83 (0.68–4.94)
ParentsUndifferentiatedNo effect on risk of stroke
ParentsDifferentiatedOR (SAH) 1.7 (0.6–5.3), (ICH) 2.1 (0.7–6.0), (CI) 1.4 (0.9–2.5), (all stroke) 1.5 (1.05–2.1), multivariate adjusted (ischemic strokes) FHx not significant
ParentsUndifferentiatedNo significant association on multivariate analysis
Not specifiedDifferentiatedCerebral thrombosis (age+sex adjusted): RR FHxstroke 0.71, FHxHTN 1.80, FHxIHD 1.41 all nonsignificant
Cerebral hemorrhage (age+sex adjusted): RR FHxstroke 1.44 P<0.05, FHxHTN 1.77, FHxIHD 0.93
Crude OR 1.54 (0.83–2.85), attributable risk 0.09 (−0.04–0.19)
RR 2.2 (1.4–3.6) independent of HTN, smoking
Crude OR (pt<55) 12.18 (7.55–58.03), OR (pt>55) 1.87 (1.1–4.7), adjusted (age, BP) OR (pt<55) 5.08 (?), OR (pt>55) 1.67 (0.92–3.12)
No influence
No overall excess of FHx
Higher than expected in normal population

Twin Studies

The characteristics and main results of the studies are summarized in Table 2. The 2 Scandinavian twin studies9,12 used national death or hospital discharge registries to identify twins with stroke. The original report of the American study employed a mailed questionnaire10; the follow-up report additionally used a telephone health screen and a mortality review.11 None of the twin studies distinguished between stroke subtypes or assessed confounding by other risk factors. In the meta-analysis, monozygotic twins were more likely to be concordant for stroke than dizygotic twins (OR, 1.65; 95% CI, 1.2 to 2.3; P=0.003; heterogeneity P=0.3; Figure 1).

TABLE 2. Characteristics of Twin Studies

MZ indicates monozygotic twins, DZ, dizygotic twins; Df, degrees of freedom.
Bak et al (2002)9Danish Twin Registry (≈11 500 same-sex twin pairs with known zygosity 3852 MZ, 7712 DZ followed up for stroke death or hospitalization for stroke)Stroke types not differentiatedConcordance for stroke death
Age 14–73 yMZ 0.18 (0.14–0.22)
Follow-up up to 51 yearsDZ 0.10 (0.08–0.13)
Heritability estimate 0.32
Concordance for stroke hospitalization or stroke death
MZ 0.19 (0.15–0.24)
DZ 0.13 (0.10–0.16)
Heritability estimate 0.17
Brass et al (1996)11National Academy of Science-NRC twin registry (4345 MZ, 5240 DZ, and 1261 unknown twin pairs)Stroke types not differentiatedConcordance for stroke or stroke related death
Age 58–68 yMZ 12.8%
Follow-up up to 10 yDZ 8.0%, χ2 = 4.085 P<0.05
Telephone health screen, mortality reviewDf1
Brass et al (1992)10National Academy of Science-NRC twin registry (15 948 male twin pairs born between 1917 and 1927; 9475 twins responded to mailed questionnaire, 1382 MZ, 1221 DZ, 119 unknown complete twin pairs included)Stroke types not differentiatedConcordance for stroke
Age 58–68 yMZ 17.7%
Cross-sectionDZ 3.6%, χ2 = 4.94 P<0.05
de Faire et al (1975)12Swedish Twin Registry (11 000 same-sex twin pairs born between 1886 and 1925 alive in 1961, 3654 MZ, 6842 DZ, 439 unknown twin pairs followed up for cause of death)Stroke types not differentiatedConcordance for fatal stoke
Age 37–52 ySimilar for MZ and DZ twins
Follow-up up to 12 y

Figure 1. Odds for concordance for stroke in monozygotic (MZ) vs dizygotic (DZ) twins. Left, Meta-analysis with latest data for all published twin studies, including follow-up report for the Veterans Affairs cohort (Brass et al,11 1996). Right, Meta-analysis with original report from the Veterans Affairs twin cohort (Brass et al,10 1992). Sig indicates significance; het, heterogeneity.

Case-Control Studies

Characteristics of the case-control studies included in the meta-analysis are summarized in Table 3. Of these, 15 independent studies differentiated between ischemic and hemorrhagic strokes, and 4 studies subtyped ischemic strokes further into cardioembolic, large-artery disease, small-artery disease, and undetermined,49,59 into cortical artery occlusion and perforating artery occlusion,60 or included only patients with large-vessel stroke.46 Most studies defined which relatives were considered in a family history (mostly FDR: parents and/or siblings), but 3 studies did not.29,55,58 Two studies used a pooled family history of stroke or hypertension or MI.48,53

TABLE 3. Characteristics of Case-Control Studies Included in the Meta-Analysis

StudySettingCountryConsec.Age, y (Range)FHx
TIA indicates transient ischemic attack; sibs, siblings; FHx, family history; N/A, not applicable; FDR, first-degree relatives; SD, standard deviation; SDR, second-degree relatives; MI, myocardial infarction; DM, diabetes mellitus; HTN, hypertension; PVD, peripheral vascular disease.
Jerrard-Dunne et al (2003)49 (cf Hassan44)HospitalEnglandYes64.4 (SD 8.7)Stroke, MI
Hassan et al (2002)44 (cf Jerrard-Dunne49)HospitalEnglandYes65.43 (SD11.4)Stroke
Polychronopoulos et al (2002)59HospitalGreeceYes67.6 (SD11.8)Stroke
Starr et al (2001)62HospitalScotlandYes70.3 (36.6–94.5)Fatal stroke, HTN, DM, other vascular diseases
Peng et al (1999)57,58HospitalChina?62.6±8.9Stroke, MI, HTN, DM
Caicoya et al (1999)35Hosp+primary careSpainYes70.8 (40–85)Stroke, MI, HTN, DM
Feigin et al (1998)38PopulationRussiaYes67.8±9.2Stroke
Kubota et al (1997)50HospitalJapanYes58 (SD 8.9)Stroke
Liao et al (1997)52Cross-section of population cohortUSAN/A60 (SD 6.6)Stroke
Toyoshima et al (1997)68Cross-section of rural populationJapanN/A35–74Stroke, HTN, DM, cancer, TB
Vitullo et al (1996)64HospitalItaly? Yes30–69Stroke, MI
Graffagnino et al (1994)42HospitalCanadaYes64.6 (SD 8.7)Stroke, MI
Margaglione et al (1994)53HospitalItaly?63.8 (31–86)Stroke or MI
Shintani et al (1993)60?Japan?61.9 (25–73) stroke onset <65Stroke
Fonte et al (1993)39HospitalItalyYes77.3±7.3Stroke
Muñiz et al (1993)56HospitalSpain?62.6±13.4Stroke, HTN
Spriggs et al (1990)61HospitalEnglandYes74 (33–97)Stroke, MI, HTN, PVD, DM
Matias-Guiu et al (1990)55 (cf Alvarez et al [1989]32)HospitalSpainYes42.9 (15–50)Stroke, MI, HTN, DM
Li et al (1990)51Population cross-sectionRural ChinaN/A?Stroke, HTN
Thompson et al (1989)63General practiceUKYes45–69Stroke, MI
Hu et al (1989)47Cross-section, cluster samplingTaiwanN/A37–85Stroke, MI, HTN, DM
Diaz et al (1986)37HospitalCanadaYes69.3 (SD 6.6)Stroke, MI, HTN, DM
Herman et al (1983)45HospitalNetherlandsYes40–74Stroke, MI, HTN, DM
Abu-Zeid et al (1977)29HospitalCanadaYes66.99±14.1Stroke
Alter and Kluznik (1972)31 (cf Alter [1967]30)HospitalUSA??Stroke, MI, DM, HTN
Heyden et al (1969)46HospitalUSA?58 (42–81)Fatal stroke, MI
Issaeva and Mikheev (1967)48HospitalRussia?30–70Stroke or HTN or MI
Gifford (1966)41HospitalUSA?Median 60–64Fatal strokes, MI

TABLE 3. Continued

Characteristics of Affected Relatives ConsideredRelativesDifferentiationControl Group
YesYesParents/sibsIschemic subtyped into large artery, small artery, cardioembolic, and undeterminedSpouse and community sampling controls (age- +sex-matched)
YesYesParents/sibsIschemicSpouse and community sampling controls (age- +sex-matched),
NoNoFDRHemorrhagic and ischemic (ischemic subtyped into large artery, small artery, cardioembolic, and undetermined)Matched controls
YesNoParentsNot differentiated for FHx of strokePopulation controls (age-/sex-/parental occupation-matched)
NoNoNot definedIschemicHospital controls (age- +sex-matched)
NoNoFDRNot differentiated for FHx of strokePopulation controls (age- +sex-matched)
NoNoParents/sibsIschemicPopulation controls (age- +sex-matched)
NoNoParents/grandparentsIschemic and hemorrhagicOutpatient controls (age- +sex-matched)
NoNoFDRNot differentiated(Some overlap with ARIC study21)
NoNoParentsNot differentiated
YesYesFDRIschemicHospital controls
NoNoFDR, SDR separatelyIschemic (cardioembolic excluded)Population controls (age- +sex-matched)
YesNoParents/sibsIschemicOutpatient controls with cardiovascular risk factors
<55 M
<60 F
NoNoParents/sibsIschemic, cortical, and lacunar differentiated“Normal control subjects”
<65NoFDRIschemic both stroke and TIAHospital controls (age- +sex-matched)
NoNoParents/sibsNot differentiatedHospital controls (age-/sex-/residence-matched)
NoNoFDRNot differentiatedGP register controls (age- +sex-matched)
NoNoNot definedIschemicControls (age- +sex-matched)
NoNoFDR, grandparentsIschemic and hemorrhagic
NoNoParents/sibsNot differentiatedGP practice controls (age- +sex-matched)
NoNoParents/grandparentsNot differentiated
YesNoSibsIschemic, TIA includedSpouse controls
NoNoParents/sibsNot differentiatedHospital controls (age- +sex-matched)
NoNoNot definedIschemic and hemorrhagicHospital controls (age-/sex-/residence-matched)
YesYesParents/sibsNot differentiatedSpouse controls
YesNoParentsIschemic, large-vesselHospital controls (age-/sex-/race-matched)
NoNoParentsNot differentiatedHospital controls
NoNoParents/sibsNot differentiatedHospital controls

The combined OR for a positive family history of stroke as a risk factor for stroke was 1.76 (95% CI, 1.7 to 1.9; P<0.00001; 5991 patients). However, there was significant heterogeneity between studies (P<0.00001; Figure 2). The funnel plot of the OR versus the variance was asymmetrical (Figure 3), and there was evidence of possible publication bias on simple linear regression of the standard normal deviate against precision (P=0.003). However, studies cited in recent reviews4–6 had an overall similar association of family history of stroke with stroke risk (OR, 1.56; 95% CI, 1.4 to 1.8; P<0.00001; heterogeneity P=0.05; 1665 patients). The OR did not change significantly when only the 15 studies exclusively investigating ischemic stroke were combined (OR, 1.75; 95% CI, 1.6 to 2.0; P<0.00001; heterogeneity P=0.005; 3800 patients).

Figure 2. Odds for stroke patients vs controls to have a positive family history (FHx) of stroke (ordered by variance).

Figure 3. Funnel plot of OR of family history of stroke as a risk factor for stroke vs precision (ie, inverse of the standard error of the OR) in case-control (full circles) and cohort studies (empty circles). Note the asymmetry of the plot due to a lack of low precision estimates with odds <1 (ie, small negative studies).

Studies that fulfilled at least 6 methodological quality criteria found a weaker association with family history of stroke (OR, 1.28; 95% CI, 1.1 to 1.5; P=0.01; heterogeneity P=0.27; 1221 patients) than studies that fulfilled more than half but <6 (OR, 1.88; 95% CI, 1.7 to 2.0; P<0.00001; heterogeneity P=0.0001; 4280 patients) and studies that fulfilled less than half the methodological quality criteria (OR, 2.40; 95% CI, 1.8 to 3.2; P<0.00001; heterogeneity P=0.0001; 490 patients). The difference between the 3 strata was significant (P=0.00006; Figure 4). There was no correlation (r=0.085, P=0.67) between the inverse standard error (precision) of a study and the quality score.

Figure 4. Odds for stroke patients to have a positive family history (FHx) of stroke. Studies are stratified by quality criteria (A) and inverse of their standard error (B). Sig indicates significance; het, heterogeneity.

Ten studies adjusted the ORs for a family history of stroke at least partially for the presence of other established risk factors of stroke in patients,§ and 1 study62 adjusted the ORs for the presence of risk factors for stroke in relatives. They found with 3 exceptions35,49,58 that adjustment either attenuated the association with family history of stroke or that family history was no longer a significant risk factor after adjustment (Table 4). Two studies that investigated the influence of environmental factors other than smoking on family history of stroke as a risk factor for stroke found no significant association.35,64 Ten of 12 studies56,59 investigating a possible interaction between family history of stroke and hypertension in patients found a significant association; 3 studies found an association with smoking,35,44,52 3 found an association with diabetes mellitus,37,44,52 4 found an association with the presence of ischemic heart disease or vascular disease,31,37,46,52 and 1 found an association with the presence of hyperlipidemia.42 Two studies found that family history of stroke was significantly related to a cluster of vascular risk factors.42,37

TABLE 4. Comparison of Crude, Age- and Sex-Adjusted, and Multivariate Adjusted (for Stroke Risk Factors) OR in Cohort and Case-Control Studies Included in Meta-Analysis

OR Crude (95%CI)OR (Age, Sex) (95%CI)OR Multivariate (95%CI)
Cohort studies
    Morrison et al211.11 (0.85–1.43)1.05 (0.81–1.37)
    Jousilahti et al16
        Men1.53 (0.89–2.65)1.51 (0.88–2.61)
        Women1.71 (1.03–2.84)1.79 (1.08–2.97)
    Wannamethee et al261.6 (1.2–2.1)1.4 (1.1–2.0)
Case-control studies
    Peng et al585.5 (1.9–16.1)6.2 (1.3–32.3)
    Caicoya et al351.74 (1.27–2.56)1.79 (1.25–2.56)
    Kubota et al501.41 (0.83–2.39)0.82 (0.39–1.74)
    Vitullo et al641.4 (0.9–2.1)1.3 (0.8–2.1)
    Jerrard-Dunne et al491.20 (0.98–1.48)1.22 (0.90–1.39)
    Polychronopoulos et al592.41 (1.67–3.48)2.40 (1.65–3.36)2.06 (1.39–3.04)
    Liao et al521.73 (1.17–2.56)1.60 (1.08–2.39)1.56 (1.02–2.38)

Only 2 recent studies49,59 compared the association of a positive family history of stroke between ischemic stroke subtypes. Their findings and the findings of 1 additional study75 that did not include a control group and could therefore not be included in the meta-analysis are summarized in Table 5. No case-control study investigated the influence of family history of stroke on stroke severity or recovery.

TABLE 5. Two Case-Control Studies and 1 Observational Study That Compared Frequency of Family History of Stroke by Subtypes of Ischemic Stroke in the Proband According to the TOAST Criteria7

StudyJerrard-Dunne et al (2003)*49Polychronopoulos et al (2002)§59Meschia et al (2001)75
Proportion of patients with a family history of stroke (FHx) are given for each ischemic stroke subtype together with adjusted odds ratios (OR) for having a family history of stroke compared with controls.
*Adjusted for age, sex, hypertension, smoking, diabetes mellitus, and cholesterol.
§Adjusted for age, sex, hypertension, smoking, and diabetes mellitus.
†FHxstroke ≤65 years.
    % with FHx18.3% (44/240)49% (64/130)42% (32/77)
    Adjusted OROR 1.67 (1.08–2.66) P<0.05OR 2.05 (1.24–3.38) P=0.005No control data
    % with FHx16.2% (36/222)50% (47/94)48% (32/67)
    Adjusted OROR 1.49 (0.94–2.37) NSOR 2.76 (1.55–4.91) P=0.0006No control data
    % with FHx6.3% (7/111)40% (28/70)45% (25/55)
    Adjusted OROR 0.60 (0.26–1.39) NSOR 1.35 (0.73–2.52) P=0.34No control data
    % with FHx11.3% (32/283)51% (29/57)51% (53/103)
    Adjusted OROR 1.11 (0.70–1.77) NSOR 1.71 (0.85–3.42) P=0.13No control data
    % with FHx14.5% (137/944)48% (168/351)47% (145/310)
    Adjusted OROR 1.38 (1.01–1.90) P<0.05OR 2.06 (1.39–3.04) P=0.0003No control data

Prospective Cohorts

Characteristics of the cohort studies included in our meta-analysis are summarized in Table 6. One study21 only reported ischemic stroke outcomes, and 1 study examined a cohort of TIA patients.14 None of the remainder distinguished between hemorrhagic and ischemic strokes. All but 3 studies13,14,67 defined which relatives were considered in the family history (FDR, mainly parents).

TABLE 6. Characteristics of Prospective Cohort Studies Included in the Meta-Analysis

StudySettingCountryAge, yFollow-Up, yFHxCharacteristics of Affected Relatives ConsideredRelativesStroke Differentiated
TIA indicates transient ischemic attack; sibs, siblings; FHx, family history; N/A, not applicable; FDR, first-degree relatives; SD, standard deviation; MI, myocardial infarction.
Morrison et al (2000)21Population (probability sample)USA45–646StrokeNoNoParentsIschemic
Berger et al (1998)13Occupational cohortGermany51.7 (30–65)7.2StrokeNoNoNot definedNot differentiated
Jousilahti et al (1997)16WHO MONICA cohortFinland44 (25–64)7;12Stroke<60YesParentsNot differentiated for FHxstroke
Kobayashi et al (1997)67Health screen volunteersJapan57.5±9.21–6StrokeNoNoNot definedNot differentiated for FHxstroke
Wannamethee et al (1996)26General practice cohortUK40–59 at baseline14.8Fatal stroke, fatal MIYesYesParentsNot differentiated
Lindenstrøm et al (1993)19 (cf Boysen et al [1988]65)Population cohortDenmark>35 at baseline12StrokeNoNoParentsNot differentiated
Random selection
Brass and Shaker (1991)14TIA patientsUSA69 (14–99)1–4Stroke, MI,NoNoNot definedIschemic
Welin et al (1987)27Birth cohortSweden54 at baseline18.5Fatal strokeYesNoParentsNot differentiated
Khaw and Barrett-Connor (1986)17PopulationUSA50–79 at baseline9StrokeNoNoFDRNot differentiated

Individuals with a positive family history of stroke had a slightly higher risk of subsequent stroke than those without a family history (OR, 1.30; 95% CI, 1.2 to 1.5; P<0.00001; 1906 stroke outcomes). However, there was major heterogeneity between studies (P=0.0001; Figure 5). The funnel plot of the OR versus the variance was asymmetrical (Figure 3), and there was borderline significant evidence of potential publication bias (P=0.10). However, those studies cited in the recent reviews4–6 reported significantly (P=0.00007) higher odds (OR, 1.76; 95% CI, 1.5 to 2.1; P<0.00001; heterogeneity P=0.18) than studies that were not cited (OR, 1.12; 95% CI, 1.0 to 1.3; P=0.16; heterogeneity P=0.05). There was also possible reporting bias in that the majority of cohort studies that we could not include in the formal meta-analysis because they gave no detailed numbers failed to find significant associations of family history of stroke with stroke risk.15,20,22–24,28,66

Figure 5. Odds for subsequent stroke in subjects with a positive family history (FHx) of stroke in cohort studies (ordered by variance).

Two studies examined the influence of family history of stroke on stroke severity and found a greater influence on less severe strokes,21,26 but no study investigated an association between family history of stroke and stroke recovery.

Five studies adjusted at least partially for potential confounding by established stroke risk factors in the subjects. One study did not report the effect of adjustment.17 The association was attenuated after adjustment in 2 studies21,26 but did not show any major change in the other 2 studies16,27 (Table 4). Two studies also adjusted for potential environmental confounding other than smoking. One of these found that the risk conferred by a positive family history of stroke was independent of the socioeconomic status,16 and the other26 found that patients with a family history of stroke were more likely to be manual workers but found no interaction between family history of stroke and heavy alcohol drinking or physical activity.

Three studies found a significant interaction between family history of stroke and presence of hypertension in the studied probands.16,17,26 One study also found a positive association between family history of stroke and increased body mass index and cholesterol levels but failed to find an association with smoking or diabetes mellitus.26

Influence of Age

Four case-control and 3 prospective cohort studies reported a family history of stroke in relatives at young age. Jerrard-Dunne et al49 and Fonte et al39 provided details about stroke onset in FDR before the age of 65 years, Margaglione et al53 reported about stroke or MI in male FDR aged <55 years and female FDR aged <60 years, and Diaz et al37 reported family history of stroke onset in siblings aged <70 years. The combined OR for these 4 studies was nonsignificantly (P=0.35) higher (OR, 1.82; 95% CI, 1.4 to 2.3; P<0.00001; heterogeneity P=0.78; 1311 patients; Figure 6) than the remainder (OR, 1.61; 95% CI, 1.5 to 1.7; P<0.00001; heterogeneity P<0.00001). Both cohort studies26,27 that stratified their analyses by whether parental stroke occurred before or after age 70 years found a larger effect on stroke risk for parental stroke before 70 years. It was not possible, however, to perform a meta-analysis on these studies because they did not report absolute numbers for each stratum separately. A third study that only considered family history of stroke in parents aged <60 years16 found an overall OR for stroke of 1.89 in men and 1.80 in women.

Figure 6. Odds for stroke patients vs controls to have a positive family history (FHx) in FDR aged <65 years (top) and odds for stroke patients aged <70 years to have a positive family history of stroke vs controls (bottom).

Five case-control studies41,48,50,63,64 recruited only patients aged <70 years, 1 study recruited patients with stroke onset at <65 years,60 1 study recruited patients with stroke onset at <50 years,55 and 1 study reported family histories separately for patients aged <54 and ≥54 years.68 The combined OR for these younger patient groups was nonsignificantly (P=0.10) higher (OR, 1.93; 95% CI, 1.7 to 2.2; P<0.00001; heterogeneity P=0.0001; 1240 patients; Figure 6) than the remainder (OR, 1.69; 95% CI, 1.6 to 1.8; P<0.00001; heterogeneity P=0.00001).

Two prospective cohort studies14,17 reported the influence of family history of stroke on the subgroup of individuals who had their strokes when aged <65 or 70 years, respectively, during follow-up. They found a reduced effect in younger probands (OR, 0.41; 95% CI, 0.2 to 0.8; P=0.29; heterogeneity P=0.85; 38 stroke outcomes); however, the number of strokes was very small. In addition, Wannamethee et al26 reported that the increased risk of stroke with parental death from stroke was apparent in older men (aged 50 to 59 years at baseline) but not in younger men (aged 40 to 49 years at baseline). In contrast, Jousilahti et al16 found a higher relative risk of family history of stroke for both men and women aged <50 years compared with older individuals.

Influence of Number of Affected Relatives

Two case-control studies46,64 and 1 prospective cohort study26 reported the effect if both parents had been affected by stroke26,64 or vascular disease.46 The combined OR for a family history of stroke in the case-control studies increased significantly (P=0.018) when they were analyzed separately for a family history in only 1 parent (OR, 1.08; 95% CI, 0.7 to 1.6; P=0.77; heterogeneity P=0.35) versus a family history of both parents (OR, 2.45; 95% CI, 1.4 to 4.2; P=0.002; heterogeneity P=0.18). The number of subjects with 2 affected parents in the cohort study was too small to allow meaningful analysis.

Test for Heterogeneity

Cohort studies (P=0.069), higher maximum age of patients (P=0.071), and higher maximum age of relatives (P=0.059) were associated with a lower OR on univariate analysis of potential sources of heterogeneity. These parameters still had a significant inverse association if tested together in a multivariate model (type of study, P=0.032; maximum age of relatives, P=0.021; maximum age of patients, P=0.018) and accounted for approximately 34% of the total heterogeneity between studies (adjusted R2=0.344).

There was highly significant (P<0.0001; Figure 3) evidence of possible publication bias if both case-control and cohort studies were tested together. When stratified into tertiles according to the inverse of the standard error (precision) of their individual estimates, the most power-ful (largest) studies found significantly (P<0.00001) smaller ORs (OR, 1.48; 95% CI, 1.4 to 1.6; P<0.00001; heterogeneity P<0.00001) than studies of intermediate power (OR, 1.82; 95% CI, 1.6 to 2.0; P<0.00001; heterogeneity P=0.005) and low power (OR, 2.30; 95% CI, 1.9 to 2.8; P<0.00001; heterogeneity P=0.24; Figure 4).


A number of epidemiological studies of twins, affected sibling pairs, and family history data have suggested that there are significant genetic influences in stroke. Previous nonsystematic reviews of genetic epidemiology of stroke had identified 11 to 16 family history studies and 1 twin study. Ours is the first systematic review, and we identified 50 independent family history studies and 3 independent twin studies.

Twin studies provide the most reliable evidence of genetic influence in complex diseases, and they are best suited to disentangle genetic influences from influences of a shared environment. However, there are difficulties in conducting twin studies in stroke patients. Stroke most commonly affects old people, which makes it challenging to recruit enough twin pairs and increases the chance of twins dying of other unrelated diseases. Thus far, only 3 twin studies have been reported, and they reached different conclusions. Our meta-analysis showed a small genetic influence on the risk of stroke, with monozygotic twins being 1.6 times more likely to be concordant for stroke than dizygotic twins. This should be compared with a 3- to 5-fold better correlation of blood pressure among monozygotic twins versus dizygotic twins70,71 and a 10-fold higher concordance of monozygotic versus dizygotic twins in studies of multiple sclerosis.72 The most frequently quoted twin study of stroke, which used a mailed questionnaire for case ascertainment, found a 17.7% concordance in monozygotic twins versus 3.6% in dizygotic twins.10 This higher concordance might partially be explained by the younger age of the twins in this study compared with the other twin studies, which mainly explored concordance of fatal stroke, suggesting an increase in the relative influence of hereditary factors on stroke risk in younger patients. However, this initial study was based on only 8 stroke-concordant twin pairs, and on 10-year follow-up this difference had diminished to 12.8% and 8.0%, respectively, which is in good agreement with the other 2 studies. Interestingly, in a study on heritability of coronary heart disease among Swedish twins, Marenberg et al73 found a very strong association of age and genetic liability with a strong genetic component among young twins and a weak component among old twins. None of the twin studies of stroke differentiated between stroke subtypes or collected information on other risk factors to assess potential confounders.

We also found that a family history of stroke was only a moderate risk factor for stroke in case-control and cohort studies. Case-control studies found a higher risk compared with prospective cohort studies, but the results of the highest quality case-control studies were very similar to the findings of the prospective cohort studies (OR, 1.28; 95% CI, 1.1 to 1.5 versus OR, 1.30; 95% CI, 1.2 to 1.5). Prospective cohort studies eliminate recall bias, which is one of the most important biases in family history studies, and they are therefore more likely to determine the true underlying effect. Nevertheless, there was major heterogeneity between studies within both the case-control and the prospective cohort groups.

There was evidence of possible publication bias in both case-control and prospective cohort studies, with larger studies reporting more conservative estimates than small studies. There was also evidence of reporting bias. However, it is likely that there was true heterogeneity between studies. First, there is some evidence that genetic factors are less important in strokes that occur later in life. Studies that only considered a family history of stroke to be positive if the affected relatives were younger than a certain age16,39,53 found a stronger association than the pooled estimate. Moreover, studies that stratified their analysis by the age at which strokes occurred in relatives found a stronger effect of family history of stroke in the group of relatives affected at a younger age.16,25–27,37,49 There is more uncertainty in studies investigating young stroke patients. Studies investigating only young and middle-aged patients with stroke41,48,50,55,60,63,64 found a greater influence of family history of stroke compared with studies including older patients, but there was disagreement between the studies that stratified their patients by age and reported on the effect of family history of stroke in different age strata.

Second, not all stroke types are likely to be equally heritable, and case mix is therefore likely to influence the results. For instance, subarachnoid hemorrhage, which was included in some of the studies, might have a different genetic component compared with other strokes.74,50 Many studies did not differentiate between ischemic and hemorrhagic stroke, and only 2 studies49,59 subtyped ischemic stroke sufficiently to compare a family history between subtypes. Large- and small-vessel disease was more strongly associated with a positive family history of stroke than the remainder of ischemic strokes. One additional study75 gave details of a family history of stroke in carefully subtyped stroke patients but did not include a control group. The exact stroke phenotype among affected family members is very difficult to ascertain, and this could mask stronger associations of less frequent stroke subtypes.

Third, few studies investigated the potential influence of the number of affected relatives or controlled for family size. The impact of a family history of stroke increased with the number of affected FDR in the studies25,46,64 that reported on this. Few studies corrected their findings for this effect.

Fourth, the influence of family history on the risk of stroke might vary in different populations and ethnic groups and may also vary over time as environmental factors, dietary habits, and levels of deprivation change. A considerable degree of the heritability of stroke appears to be conferred by the heritability of risk factors and intermediate phenotypes (see below). The introduction of preventive treatments such as antihypertensive drugs, statins, and carotid endarterectomy could have attenuated the penetrance of stroke. Interestingly, the strongest associations were found in studies from the 1960s,41,46 mainland China,51,58 and Russia.48

Fifth, genetic factors could have an influence on stroke severity. Only 2 studies21,26 investigated the influence of family history of stroke on stroke severity. Both found an increased influence on less severe strokes. However, there was no consistency in the results between studies that only considered a family history of fatal stroke. Four studies26,27,41,46 found a positive association with family history of fatal stroke, whereas 4 others18,23,54,62 failed to find any association. Reed et al69 found a positive correlation between a family history of stroke and MRI stroke volume on purely imaging-defined strokes in probands.

Finally, several other methodological issues could potentially affect the strength of association between family history of stroke and risk of stroke. The choice of control groups (eg, whether they included patients with other vascular diseases) is likely to affect the magnitude of association. In addition, the ascertainment of family history is difficult, and different methodologies to collect family history are prone in varying degrees to bias and inaccuracies.76,77

Most established risk factors and intermediate phenotypes for stroke, such as hypertension, diabetes mellitus, ischemic heart disease, hypercholesterolemia, smoking, and carotid stenosis, are likely to run in families.78–85 A family history of stroke was associated with a higher proportion of hypertension# and other conventional risk factors in patients, including smoking, and most studies found that adjustment for vascular risk factors diminished the associations between family history and stroke. In addition, Nicolaou et al86 found a higher occurrence of hypertension and stroke in parents of hypertensive probands compared with controls; Williams et al1 found that positive family histories of ischemic heart disease, stroke, hypertension, and diabetes mellitus were significantly associated with each other; and finally, Lestro-Henriques et al87 found that a family history of cardiac or cerebrovascular disease was more common in hypertensive stroke patients than in normotensive stroke patients. Furthermore, in 2 other studies, a family history of stroke was significantly related to a cluster of vascular risk factors.37,42 We were unable, however, to precisely estimate the contribution of the heritability of risk factors to the heritability of stroke. Most studies reported that heritability of stroke was independent of hypertension (or at least independent of a history of hypertension or a single measurement of blood pressure).16,17,26,27,49,52,58,59 The collection of family histories of risk factors poses further methodological difficulties since hypertension, type II diabetes mellitus, and hypercholesterolemia were significantly underdiagnosed in the past, and diagnostic criteria have changed. The contribution of these risk factors to the heritability of stroke may therefore be greater than previously thought.

We were not able to assess the role of environmental factors, eg, smoking, eating, and drinking habits or social status in a positive family history of stroke and to what degree they modulate genetic influences.


We identified 53 independent studies of the genetic epidemiology of ischemic stroke. Taken together, these studies suggested a small genetic contribution to stroke occurrence, but there was major heterogeneity between studies, with much stronger associations in small studies and methodologically less rigorous studies. Moreover, studies that reported insufficient data to allow meta-analysis tended to have found weaker associations. It is possible that the genetic contribution is larger for certain subtypes of stroke. However, only 2 studies considered stroke phenotype in detail, and many studies did not differentiate between ischemic and hemorrhagic stroke in the proband. There was some evidence that the genetic contribution is greater for stroke occurring at a younger age, with stronger associations in analyses confined to probands or relatives aged <70 years. However, few studies considered the number of affected and unaffected relatives, and only a minority of studies adjusted associations for intermediate phenotypes. There were few data on the influence of family history on stroke severity and no data on stroke recovery. More detailed large-scale genetic epidemiological studies are required.

This study was supported by the United Kingdom Medical Research Council (Drs Floßmann and Rothwell) and the Wellcome Trust (Dr Schulz). We would like to thank Robert Cuffe for advice on statistical analysis. We are very grateful to Professor Hugh S. Markus for providing us with the raw numbers from his study of family history in subtypes of ischemic stroke.49


Correspondence to Dr P.M. Rothwell, Stroke Prevention Research Unit, Department of Clinical Neurology, Radcliffe Infirmary, Woodstock Rd, Oxford 0X2 6HE, UK. E-mail


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