updated 3/12/2009 8:29:10 AM ET 2009-03-12T12:29:10

Want to plant the seeds for a long, happy life? A look at your family health history will give you an idea of what you need to watch for. Learning how to head off heritable health troubles now is the best way to make sure you have many fruitful years to come!

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Heart disease
A diagnosis in a parent or sibling may be more likely to indicate an inherited form of heart disease than one in a cousin or grandparent, says Donna Arnett, Ph.D., chairwoman of the department of epidemiology at the University of Alabama School of Public Health in Birmingham. Also, a diagnosis in any male relative before he turns 55 suggests the disease may be genetic; in women, that age is 65. Late-onset heart disease is more likely caused by poor health habits.

Type 1 diabetes (the insulin-dependent kind) can appear at any age, although most diagnoses are made during puberty. A predisposition is passed from parent to child, rarely skipping a generation, says Larry C. Deeb, M.D., an endocrinologist in Tallahassee, Florida. No type 1 in your family? Your odds of getting it are minimal. Type 2 in any of your relatives may suggest a genetic link — but inactivity and excess pounds can increase the chances those genes will cause problems.

Colon cancer
When a relative is diagnosed before age 50, the risk is greater that there is an inherited predisposition in your bloodline, says Angela Trepanier, president of the National Society of Genetic Counselors in Chicago. If you have one relative with early-age-onset colon cancer or two or more diagnosed at any age, ask your doctor about genetic counseling. And if you or a close relative has had multiple colon polyps detected before age 50, you may have an increased risk.

Blood clots
Sticky blood runs in families; it can cause deep-vein thrombosis, stroke and heart attack, says Cynthia K. Shortell, M.D., director of the Center for Vascular Disease at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina. If a first-degree relative has had a clot without a clear cause (surgery, trauma, hormonal birth control or a long plane ride can lead to clots in healthy people, regardless of genes), it’s very likely to be hereditary. Blood tests can ID some clot-causing culprits.

Breast cancer
If a relative was diagnosed before age 50, it’s more likely she has an inherited form of the disease, Trepanier says. Consider genetic counseling if your tree reveals any of the following: two or more relatives with breast cancer; a male relative with breast cancer; a mother or sister with early-onset breast cancer; or any ovarian cancer. (Breast and ovarian cancers are linked to the same gene mutation.) Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry also confers a higher overall risk.

Ovarian cancer
Between 5 percent and 10 percent of cases are hereditary forms of the disease, Trepanier says. And given the disease’s few notable symptoms, family history is one of the only warning signs. If even one close relative has been diagnosed at any age, bring it up with your doctor. Any of these red flags may warrant genetic counseling: Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry; a relative with both breast and ovarian cancers; a male relative with breast cancer; multiple relatives with breast and/or ovarian cancer.

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