Your Family’s Health History: Why it Matters

When it comes to your health, there are many factors you can somewhat control, including your diet, exercise and rest. But there are also some factors beyond your control that can affect your health. And top on that list is your genes. Just like you inherit physical traits from your family, like hair color and height, you can also inherit a predisposition to conditions like heart disease or diabetes.

Catching these conditions early is essential to preventing and treating them. That’s why it’s so important to take stock of your family health history. Wondering how to do that? Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Start with first-degree relatives (parents and siblings) and then branch out to second-degree relatives (grandparents, cousins).
  • Ask about chronic conditions and common diseases that relatives have had and find out what older generations passed away from.
  • Ask about age at diagnosis – early appearance of many conditions can be an important indicator of genetic risk.
  • Ask about your family’s national origins – this information can help track conditions common in different regions of the world.

While you’re running down the checklist for your chart, you’ll want to be sure to touch on a few specific conditions that have strong ties to family history:

Breast Cancer: If one direct female relative (mother, sister or daughter) has had breast cancer, your risk may double. If two or more have been diagnosed, your risk could triple, according to the American Cancer Society. While it’s generally recommended that women 40 and older schedule a regular mammogram, if you identify a family pattern, your doctor may recommend scheduling them earlier on or adding an MRI.

Heart Disease: In one study on families’ genetic disposition for early heart disease, just 14% of participating families accounted for 72% of the total cases. For those at increased risk, doctors may recommend an early regimen of aspirin, as well as sticking to a strict diet with more stringent limits on cholesterol intake.

Diabetes: If one of your direct relatives has been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, your risk for the disease is increased, but lifestyle can play a large role in prevention. Knowing your family history really is key, as well as sticking to a stricter diet and exercise routine.

While charting family health history can make you better aware of your risk for certain conditions, it’s always beneficial to consult with your doctor to determine the best personal health plan for you.

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Photo credit: xavierarnau

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