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Most people are aware that the risk of various diseases can be reduced by getting sufficient exercise, eating a diet that is healthy, and refraining from smoking. But fewer people are aware that one’s family history might be among the strongest of influences on the risk of one’s developing stroke, diabetes, heart disease, or cancer. While changing one’s genetic makeup is impossible, awareness of the family history can assist in the reduction of risk of the development of health problems.

Members of families share not only genes, but also lifestyles, environment, and often habits as well. Everyone recognizes shared traits as curly or straight hair, athletic ability or lack, vision, or dimples that run within families. Other traits that run in families are the risks for diseases such as asthma, cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Everyone has a different family history of disease.

The key facets of a family medical history that can increase risk are more than one close relative having the disease, a disease that generally does not affect a particular gender, diseases occurring at a younger age than they generally strike, and particular combinations of diseases inside a family, such as diabetes and heart disease. Anyone’s family that has a single of these features or more might find important clues about disease risk inside the family history.

Those who have a disease in their family history may gain the most from screening tests and lifestyle changes. Genes remain unchanged, but unhealthy behaviors such as inactivity, smoking, and poor eating habits can change. Screening tests can detect such diseases as cancers at early stages, at which point they are more easily treatable.

To collect one’s family health history, it is important to talk to family members from both sides of the family. Write down family members’ names, those of close relatives on both father’s and mother’s sides. These include parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents, nieces, and nephews. Talk to them about conditions they may have or once had, including how old they were when the conditions first were diagnosed. Ask questions. Find out about chronic diseases and serious diseases; the former include diabetes and heart disease, while the latter include stroke and cancer, including which variety of cancer.