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Predicting your risk of disease by looking at your family history

You've probably heard the old expression, "You can't pick your relatives." And unfortunately, you can't pick your family's health history, either. But, if you know which conditions run in your family, you can change certain lifestyle habits that may put you at even higher risk, and be proactive with screening tests for early detection.

To find out your family's medical history, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends asking questions, talking at family gatherings and looking at death certificates and family medical records, if possible. You will want to collect the following information from your family (including grandparents, parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews):

  • Major medical conditions and causes of death
  • Age of disease onset and age at death
  • Ethnic background
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The U.S. Surgeon General, with the cooperation of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, provides a tool that helps you easily organize your family medical history. This web-based Family Health Portrait allows you to collect the information and print it out for yourself and your healthcare provider.

When you share your family history information with your health care provider, he or she can make better decisions about your personal health care approach: determine which screening tests should be administered early and advise you on preventive measures.

Assessing your risk of developing diabetes or heart disease

A family history of conditions such as diabetes and heart disease can heavily influence your risk. Review the specific risk factors below; the more items that apply to you, the higher your risk. Contact your healthcare provider if you believe you are at risk for either of these diseases.


Evaluate these type 2 diabetes risk factors from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases:
  • I have a parent, brother, or sister with diabetes
  • I am over 45
  • I am overweight
  • My family background is Alaska Native, American Indian, African-American, Hispanic/Latino, Asian-American or Pacific Islander.
  • I have had gestational diabetes, or I gave birth to at least one baby weighing more than 9 pounds.
  • My blood pressure is 140/90 mm Hg or above, or I have been told that I have high blood pressure.
  • My cholesterol levels are not normal. My HDL cholesterol is below 35 mg/dL, or my triglyceride level is above 250 mg/dL.
  • I am fairly inactive. I exercise fewer than three times a week.
  • On previous testing, I had impaired fasting glucose (IFG) or impaired glucose tolerance (IGT).
  • I have polycystic ovary syndrome
  • I have other clinical conditions associated with insulin resistance
  • I have a history of cardiovascular disease

Heart disease

Review these heart disease risk factors from The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute:
  • Family history of coronary artery disease: your risk increases if your father or brother was diagnosed before age 55, or if your mother or sister was diagnosed before age 65.
  • High blood cholesterol and high triglyceride levels
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes and pre-diabetes
  • Overweight and obesity
  • Smoking
  • Lack of physical exercise
  • Unhealthy diet
  • Stress
  • Age: Risk increases for men over 45 and for women over 55 (or after menopause)

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Join our discussions:
Showing comment(s)
January 9, 2013
An article in the NY Times seems to refute the value or ability of looking at genetics to predict disease:

They argue that, while genetics can predict up to 75% of the cases of Alzheimers, autoimmune thyroid disease, and type 1 diabetes, there is no known way of preventing or slowing the progression of those diseases -- even if they can predict them. The one case where it may be most helpful is for predicting heart disease in men. For other conditions, they conclude that behavior, environment and randomness play much more important roles.
March 16, 2014
I think this topic is fascinating. However, not only are the genetics we inherit a factor in our health, but even things as simple as the diet, environmental factors and lifestyle of our great, great grandparents can play a role. Anyone who is interested in how this works can do a search on the "epigenetics."
Sheryl at
March 19, 2014
I agree, Matt. From what I understand of epigentics, events that happened 60-70 years ago might have little effect on those who were personally involved but then, 3 or 4 generations later, those events or lifestyle choices can express themselves as heart problems, mental problems or obesity in the great grandchildren. There was wonderful article in Smithsonian magazine, Dec. 2013 that explained how this might work: just like burrs that attach to a sweater, molecules can attach to our DNA without changing the DNA and these burrs ride along for generations before health consequences appear. Here is a site that explains it much better than I can:
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