Illustration: Richard Mia

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How did our family members pass away?
One of the most important steps in decoding your health history is establishing which diseases claimed family members' lives. Look back three generations and pay particular attention to any conditions that affected more than one of your close relatives—especially combinations of diseases, like breast cancer and ovarian cancer. (A rare genetic mutation increases the risk that breast and ovarian cancer will develop within families, so if your mother had ovarian cancer and her sister had breast cancer, you may carry the gene.) But it's not enough to talk about the causes of death—you need to know about underlying health issues that could have been the real culprit. Say, for instance, your grandfather died of a heart attack; you'd want to learn whether it was triggered by unusually high cholesterol, a condition that can be genetic. If it does appear that a disease runs in your family, you might want to consider talking to your primary care doctor about genetic testing, in which a blood sample or cheek swab can reveal whether you actually carry the gene for the illness. (Tests have been developed to identify more than 2,500 diseases.) If you do carry the gene for a preventable or treatable condition, like high cholesterol, your doctor can help you take steps to stop it from developing or to keep it under control.
As a reminder, always consult your doctor for medical advice and treatment before starting any program.