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Know Your Family's Health History

You have mom's hair and dad's height. That's great, but genes can also pass down chronic diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers. Learn your family health history to help gauge your risk for disease. Then do all you can to head it off.

If you know your grandfather died of a heart attack, for example, you might want to quit smoking. If your aunt had breast cancer and you're a woman, you might want to get a mammogram. Environment, culture and lifestyle also play roles in your risk for disease.

You can't change your genes, but you can modify your lifestyle to reduce your risks. If you know that you might have a genetic risk for a chronic disease, modifying your lifestyle might be even more important for you.

To find out what your family risks are, ask people on both sides of your family. Start with your parents, siblings and children. Next come grandparents, aunts and uncles, and nieces and nephews.

Need help organizing your findings? Check "My Family Health Portrait" on the U.S. Surgeon General's website, http://www.hhs.gov/familyhistory. Keep copies for yourself, your family and your doctors.

What to ask each family member

  • Common chronic diseases. These include heart disease, diabetes, neurological diseases, hemophilia, cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, stroke, and cancer. Get as much specific information about these diseases as you can.

  • Other serious medical conditions, such as, pregnancy complications or birth defects.

  • Age at onset of disease.

  • Ethnicity. Some conditions are more common in certain ethnic groups.

  • Also ask about family members no longer living: What was the age at death and cause?

What it means

These are instances when you may face a greater health risk because of a family history of illness:

  • The disease occurred at an earlier age (in some cases).

  • The disease occurred in more than one close relative on the same side of the family.

  • The disease occurred in combination with another disease, for instance, your mother had both breast and colon cancer.

  • The disease occurred in a gender not normally prone to it, such as breast cancer in males.