Health & Medicine

Knowing your family’s health history can help you stay healthier

Dr. Gretchen Wells
Dr. Gretchen Wells

It’s Mother’s Day, and many of you are plan to call your mother. You can use that opportunity to do good for yourself and the rest of your family.

Women tend to be the keepers of family history. Some of that information is fun, such as your first words or your brother’s sports awards. But mothers also can have information that could help reduce your risk of heart disease.

Ask her: Did your grandfather have a heart attack? Did your aunt have a stroke? Did any of your relatives have diabetes? How old were they when this happened? The answers to these questions can help you understand your own disease risk.

Your family history gives you and your doctor crucial information that will guide your healthcare plan. While you can’t counteract your genetics, if you have a family history of heart disease you can change your behavior to reduce your risk. By committing to healthier habits for yourself — such as improved diet, more exercise, and quitting smoking —you also become a role model for family members who share your genetic traits.

Even if your family has a clean bill of health, there are other factors (such as race or ethnicity) that can increase your risk for heart disease. For example, blacks have higher risks for diabetes, high blood pressure, and stroke. One in three Hispanics will suffer from high blood pressure, and nearly half will have high cholesterol levels.

A family history can be helpful for more than just heart disease, since genetics can play a role in many other diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, some cancers, and osteoporosis.

If your mother can’t answer these questions, ask your father, an aunt, or other family member what they know, and then share this information with your healthcare provider, who can tailor a plan to help you counteract the potential negative effects of your genetics.

Heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death in the United States, and stroke is No. 5. Knowing your family’s health history is one important step to help you avoid these devastating diseases.

Dr. Gretchen Wells is director of the Women’s Heart Health Program at the UK Gill Heart and Vascular Institute.

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