When it comes to your health, knowing your family history is key. But that’s only part of the story.
Fifteen years ago at the age of 38, Duane Klosterman realized what it meant to have a family history of heart disease. The realization didn’t come the day his dad died at age 65 from a heart attack. Or even the day his uncle suffered the same fate at 49. No, the moment of realization for Klosterman came when he received the results from a work physical and was told that his cholesterol was 300. “I don’t think my father’s dying woke me up,” says Klosterman, an environmental engineer. “It was the high test scores that really made me evaluate my habits.”
Heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes are among the most common killers in the United States. So, chances are, you probably have a relative or two–or even three or four—with one of these conditions. But even if your family tree is riddled with high blood pressure or colon cancer, that does not mean you’re destined to inherit your parents’ fate. You have their genes, but that’s only part of the story.
According to Muin Khoury, MD., Ph.D., director of the National Office of Public Health Genomics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 95 percent of the world’s diseases—like heart disease and most cancer cases—are not predetermined by your genes. “For people who have close relatives with one of these diseases, their risk is higher than the average population, but more often than not, it doesn’t reflect genetics. It reflects environmental factors and shared eating habits,” he explains.
In general, one immediate family member with heart disease, cancer or type 2 diabetes doubles your own risk. Having two or more relatives increases your chances by four or more. If that feels unbeatable, think of it like this: 5 percent of the population will get colon cancer in their lifetime. If your mom or dad had it, your risk climbs to 10 percent. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle can annihilate your risk of cancer, heart disease and diabetes by a whopping 80 percent. The numbers are still highly in your favor.
The genes we’re born with interact with our environment, and some can even be turned on and off. While we can’t change our genes, we can influence how active they will be. In 2008, Dean Ornish, M.D., put 30 men with prostate cancer on a healthy living program that included a low-fat, mostly plant-based diet; three hours of exercise per week; an hour of meditation a day; and weekly psychosocial support groups. “In just three months, their genes and their risk for cancer progression changed,” says David Katz, M.D., M.P.H., director of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center.