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All in the Family

Find Out What Your Family's Health History Means for You

You've got your mother's brown eyes, your aunt's laugh, your grandfather's height—and your father's high cholesterol, despite a healthy diet and regular trips to the gym.

More than just physical traits are passed through family lines. Health conditions common to your family may change your doctor’s recommendation for certain screenings. Follow these steps to make the most out of unfavorable genetic predispositions.

1. Learn your family's health history, and write it down.

Find out the exact cause of death of your relatives, including grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles and first cousins, their age at diagnosis and any chronic diseases they had. Get medical records whenever possible. 

Don't just find out that your grandmother died of a stroke. Find out what kind of stroke she had. Chronic diseases account for seven of the top 10 causes of death in the United States, and tendencies toward chronic conditions can be passed down through families. Look for chronic diseases in your family tree such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, liver and kidney disease, sickle cell anemia and high cholesterol.

2. Work with your doctor to create a risk-reduction plan.

Your physician can help you put the information you've gathered to use by recommending lifestyle changes and scheduling screenings appropriate for your health history. For instance, if your mother died of breast cancer at age 40, your physician may suggest you begin annual mammogram screening earlier than what is recommended for the general population. Take your physician's suggestions seriously, and  keep your doctor up-to-date with information about your family members’ health as it's available.

3. Make healthy changes to your lifestyle to help counter any inherited risk.

Knowing your family's health history won't do you any good if you don't follow your doctor's orders. Do your best to make the lifestyle changes your doctor suggests. Oftentimes, enlisting the support of a friend or a family member helps people be more successful at making healthy lifestyle changes. Making healthy lifestyle choices can also lower your risk for several conditions and diseases, not just those in your family's health history.