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Inherited Risks

Posted: 3/3/2017

Knowing Your Family Health History Can Protect You

The color of your eyes and hair, your height and personality traits -- you inherit many qualities from your parents but their health conditions don’t have to be on the list.

Dr. Ann Payne-Johnson, a family practice physician at Sacred Heart Hospital, says many chronic medical conditions including cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and depression can be considered genetic diseases because they run in families.

When you go to a medical appointment, your doctor may ask you to fill out a family medical history questionnaire. This medical form is an important screening tool used by doctors to prevent disease and promote health. The information also provides vital clues about your personal health risks and future health.

“Family health histories helps us establish if there are patterns of disease in the family or inherited forms of disease that can be passed on,” Payne-Johnson says. “It gives me a clearer picture when I’m trying to piece together health information.”

A family health history can also guide medical recommendations, such as when you should get screened for certain health conditions or when you should be prescribed medications.

While a genetic predisposition to a disease can contribute to the development of a disease, it doesn’t directly cause it.

“You can’t alter your genetic makeup, but there are other factors, like environment and lifestyle choices, that can reduce the likelihood of developing a particular disease,” Payne-Johnson explains.

When it comes to your family health history, knowledge is power, says Payne-Johnson. She suggests the following three steps to take control of your future health:

1. Gather the facts

Everyone has an older relative that knows the ins and outs of the family tree. He or she may be the best person to ask about your grandparents or great-grandparents and the health issues they may have experienced.

2. Be in the know

It’s important for you to know the diseases and health conditions of your biological relatives and the ages at which these health conditions were diagnosed. Health conditions that are especially important to note when considering family history include diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, cardiovascular disease, depression and cancer.

3. Be proactive

You have the information, now what? If you know obesity and cardiovascular disease runs in your family, use it as motivation to start an exercise program or improve your diet.

By understanding your genetic risks, you can make more informed decisions about your health and lifestyle. To learn more and make an appointment with one of the experts at Sacred Heart Health System, visit

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