Call your mother! And your grandmother. And your aunts and uncles. Interviewing your relatives about their health can help you improve yours.
“You can change your genetic destiny as long as you find out early enough what you’re at risk for,” explains Sharon Moalem, M.D., Ph.D., author of the fascinating new book, Inheritance: How Our Genes Change Our Lives and Our Lives Change Our Genes. Luckily, a pricey DNA test to map your genome isn’t required—just a family health history. “It’s the lowest tech thing: The next time your family is together, sit down, draw a family tree and say OK, Who are we related to? What does everyone have? Are there any patterns that pop out?” he says.
Then tell your doctor about any diseases that run in the family. Flag any early deaths, in particular. For example, if you have relatives who died unexpectedly at a young age from heart issues, it may be a sign of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy—an inherited condition that causes the heart muscle to thicken—and you’ll want to talk to your doc before signing up to run a marathon, Dr. Moalem says. Relatives who’ve had blood clots could indicate the genetic blood clotting disorder Factor V Leiden. If you have it (bruising easily is a sign), being on the Pill further ups your risk of deadly clots, so you’ll need to talk to your ob-gyn about your birth control method STAT. And, of course, a family history of breast and ovarian cancers may mean you have a BRCA gene mutation that greatly increases your risk of the diseases.
If your family doesn’t gather often, start dialing your loved ones today. “When you lose relatives—like your great-grandparents—then you lose that information that they may have known about their siblings and parents,” Dr. Moalem says. Once you create a detailed family history, it’s part of your health toolkit and you can pass it down to your kids as well. “It’s information that you don’t want lost,” he says.
Check out this cool tool from the Surgeon General’s office. You can use it to create a digital family health history, which you can print and bring to your doc.
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