Your family, your health

family (7)Part one of three

If you’ve ever tried to track your ancestors, you know that family history is a complex puzzle with many missing pieces. Constructing your family medical history is an even more complex process, but if you persevere and do it right, you can gain important information that can affect your own health and longevity.

Many common diseases and chronic medical conditions, such as hypertension, heart disease and diabetes are said to “run in families.” That does not mean that they are directly inherited because families share many things – environment, lifestyle, traditional ways of cooking and behavior, as well as genes.

If your father, grandmother and two of your siblings died of a heart attack, you too have an elevated risk – in part because you have inherited certain genes but also because your family eating patterns probably include a lot of saturated fats and not as many fruits and vegetables. If your doctor knows your family medical history, she can ask you appropriate questions about your lifestyle and help you make changes that will lower your risk.

In addition, there are rarer conditions, such as cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, hemophilia and certain types of breast cancer, that have a strong genetic component. Knowing that you have a family history of one of these disorders might lead you to avoid certain activities or to be screened more frequently or at an earlier age than individuals without this genetic risk.

Your doctor can be helped a great deal by specific, scientifically accurate information, spanning at least three generations. It’s unlikely that you or anyone in your family has that kind of information. You probably know little about the health history of your uncles, aunts or grandparents, and even your siblings and parents may have health issues that, for one reason or another, they haven’t shared with you.

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