Neil Stone got a painfully early education in heart disease. One by one, it stole his family members.

His paternal grandmother died from a heart attack 48. Then her brothers died young from heart attacks too. Stone’s uncle had a heart attack in his 30s. He survived, only to succumb to a heart attack in his early 40s. And a heart attack claimed Stone’s dad at 68.

“It was a striking family history,” said Stone, the Bonow Professor of Preventive Cardiology at Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. “There was so little doctors could do for heart disease in the late 1940s and early 1950s.”

Those losses had a profound impact on Stone, who was named Physician of the Year by the American Heart Association on June 25. In fact, they set his career path.

“Getting this award means a lot to me,” he said. “It acknowledges my longstanding interest in heart disease and the importance of the AHA in helping me fight heart disease.”

Ever since a young age Stone was determined to find out why heart disease was a menace to his family. He started reading everything he could. “Everyone in high school knew I was going to be a heart doctor,” he said. “It turned out that our family had high cholesterol — on both a dietary and a genetic basis.”

Stone is recognized as a national thought leader in the management of lipid disorders. A lipid is a fatty substance, like cholesterol, cholesterol compounds and triglycerides, that can’t dissolve in blood. Lipid abnormalities can contribute to heart disease, the No. 1 killer of all Americans.

Stone has been an active volunteer for the American Heart Association for nearly 30 years. His contributions have led to important guidelines for practicing physicians. And the knowledge he has learned along the way have helped him personally too.

“I’m going to be 70 this year,” he said. “The ability to not have heart disease for this long period of time has been a real boon to my family and me.”

Stone’s practice treats people with cardiovascular diseases, with a special clinic for lipid diagnosis and management at Northwestern Medical Faculty Foundation. He’s a fervent proponent of using lifestyle modifications, smoking cessation, diet and physical activity to reduce cardiovascular disease risk.

Over and over, he tells patients to know their risk of heart disease by keeping tabs on their cholesterol and blood pressure. “Lifestyle is the foundation of all prevention efforts.”

Stone recently co-chaired an expert panel on cholesterol, playing a pivotal role in developing updated cholesterol prevention guidelines. The guidelines, released in November by the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology, will be used by thousands of healthcare professionals to manage their patients and promote cardiovascular disease prevention.

For the future of heart disease, there are two areas where Stone is most hopeful: continued work for best ways to detect it early and novel therapies to prevent premature heart attack and stroke.

“When I first came to Chicago, I saw a man with very high cholesterol. It was over 400. He wasn’t expected to live beyond 50. Now he’s in his 80s,” Stone said. “All that effort and research really paid off.”