Why is it important to know what maladies your relatives have suffered from? Certain diseases, such as sickle-cell anemia, are inherited, passed down from generation to generation in the form of DNA abnormalities. Others, such as cancer or heart disease, may strike seemingly at random. You can minimize your risk of getting these diseases by living a healthy lifestyle, but having family members who’ve experienced them may be a signal that you’re at higher risk.

To learn your family’s health history, start by asking all of your living relatives about any health-related conditions they’ve experienced. Ask them about their parents and grandparents. Write things down so you have a permanent record. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, some things to watch for include:

  • Diseases that hit earlier than usual (Alzheimers or prostate cancer striking in middle age instead of old age)
  • Diseases that appear in more than one close relative
  • Diseases affecting people of the opposite gender than is typical (breast cancer in men)
  • Clusters of diseases (stroke and heart disease appearing together in several relatives)

Your relatives may be reluctant to talk about illnesses in the family. They may not even be aware of the presence of certain diseases, especially if things were "hushed up" while they were growing up. Be sensitive to the fact that conditions such as mental illness, miscarriage/stillbirth, alcoholism, mental retardation and certain cancers may carry a stigma for them. Try asking gentle questions and see if you can establish any patterns.

What if you learn that your family has a very high risk of a particular disease? While you may want to bury your head in the sand for the next few decades, think of the information as a valuable tool. Discuss the findings with your doctor to determine if there are any diagnostic tests you should take. It’s entirely possible that discovering you’re at risk for a certain condition will enable you to make lifestyle changes that will help you avoid it. Inform family members of your findings and encourage them to closely monitor their health. .