Holidays are a good time to learn about family health history

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When it comes to our health, none of us has a crystal ball.

We don't know what lies ahead of us.

But, Emory University Hospital internist Dr. Sharon Bergquist says the holidays are a good time to look backwards, and ask questions, to learn more about our family's health history.

Start by making a list of your close relatives, including your parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles and nieces and nephew.  Then, ask each about what chronic or severe medical conditions they've faced, and how old they were when they were diagnosed.

Focus, Dr. Bergquist says, on the types of conditions that are hereditary.

“For example, heart disease has a hereditary component,” Bergquist says.  “Some types of diabetes have a hereditary component.”

Cancer can also run in families.

So, if you find a pattern of a particular type of cancer in yours that may influence when you begin getting screened for that disease, and how often you get checked.

Once you have a good idea of your family’s health history, share that information with your physician.

But, keep in mind, Dr. Bergquist cautions, even though many chronic diseases are hereditary, many are also preventable.

“So, just because it runs in your family doesn't mean you are going to get that illness,” Bergquist says.  “So you need to have that discussion.  But write down that family history, take it your next physical exam appointment with your doctor and have a discussion about what you need to do.”

And, there is a lot you can do. 

Dr. Bergquist says research shows 5 lifestyle factors can dramatically cut your risk of certain chronic diseases.

“So, by maintaining your weight, exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet, not smoking, and avoiding excess alcohol, just those 5 things can reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes by 90%, heart disease by 80%, stroke by 70 percent and colorectal cancer by 70 percent,” she says.

So, where do you start?

First, Bergquist says, get moving.

“Just try and exercise more,” she says.  “Any bit more than you've done previously should be your goal.”

If your diet hasn’t been the best, try to make better choices.

“Try to shift your diet to a healthier pattern, which is more fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, trying to avoid the saturated fats and  refined sugars,” Bergquist says.

Her final suggestion?

“Get sleep,” Bergquist says. I think a lot of us underestimate the importance of sleep. Lack of sleep can affect your immune system, your hormones, your brain function.”

Most sleep experts recommend at least 7-8 hours of sleep a night for adults, but research shows many don’t get that much sleep.

If you can work on moving more, eating a little better, and getting your sleep back on track, 2017 could be a pretty good year for your health.

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