2007-10-31 / Seniors

Savvy Senior

Dear Savvy Senior,

Can a heart attack actually be inherited? I just turned 55 and am trying to make some healthy changes, and would like to know if tracing my family's health history is worth the effort.

Health Conscious Helen

Dear Helen:

Just as you can inherit your father's height or your mother's hair color, you can also inherit their genetic risk for diseases such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer and more. Here's what you should know.

Health History

Even with all the high-tech tests, medicines and procedures that are available today, an accurate family health history remains one of the most important tools in keeping yourself healthy. Since most diseases have both environmental and genetic components, your family's health history can provide you and your doctor a genetic road map to your strengths and weaknesses which can help you recognize, and even fend off, inheritable illnesses in their early stages.

Tracking your History

To collect your family's medical history, you'll need some basic medical facts about your parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles and even first cousins. Talk with them and get the specific ages when family members developed health problems like heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, osteoporosis, asthma, blindness, deafness, depression, alcoholism and more. Also, if family members are deceased, find out when and how they died. Some relatives may not want to share their medical histories or they may not know their family history, but whatever information you discover will be helpful. A good resource to help you find your ancestor's unknown medical history is their death certificate, which you can acquire from your state health department (see www.cdc.gov/nchs/howto/w2w/w2welcom .htm). Death certificates list the cause of death and your relative's age at death.

Collecting Information

The upcoming holidays, when many families come together, are a perfect time to collect your family's health history. A great resource to help you get started is the free Web-based tool called "My Family Health Portrait." At www.familyhistory.hhs.gov you can organize your family tree, identify genetic risks and even share the information with your family members and doctors. If you don't like the online version, software is available that you can download to your computer or you can print out a hard copy version to fill out by hand. Another good resource is the Genetic Alliance at www.geneticalliance.org- click on "Family Health History."

Tip: If you're adopted, the National Foster Care & Adoption Directory (www.childwelfare.gov/nfcad or 800-394- 3366) can help you locate your birth parents to get their medical history.

Increased Risks

Having a parent or sibling with a particular disease doesn't mean you'll get it too, but statistically your odds of developing it can about double. And, if two or more cases occur in the same immediate family, the odds can increase fourfold or more. Some additional factors that can increase your risks are:

• A family member who gets a disease 10 to 20 years before most people (for example, getting heart disease at age 35).

• A disease that does not usually affect a certain gender (for example, breast cancer in a man).

• A family member who gets certain combinations of diseases (for example, breast and ovarian cancer, or heart disease and diabetes).

Handling Your History

If you discover that a serious health problem runs in your family, don't despair. While you can't change your genes, you can change your habits to increase your chances of a healthy future. By eating a healthy diet, exercising and not smoking, you can offset and sometimes even neutralize your genetic vulnerabilities. This is especially true for heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis. A family medical history can also alert you to get early and frequent screening tests, which can help detect other problems (high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and cancers like breast, ovarian, prostate and colon cancer) in their early stages when they're most treatable.

Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit www.savvysenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to "The NBC Today Show" and author of The Savvy Senior books.

The Gazette does not endorse the contents of The Savvy Senior. Check with professionals about the contents of this column.

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