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Relative Risks

In the Family - But Not Hereditary

An Interview with Dr. Rodolfo Valdez

You’ve got the same disease that’s plagued three generations of your family. Don’t be alarmed; it might not be hereditary.

"Infectious diseases can show a family history too,” says Dr. Rodolfo Valdez, a Venezuela-born epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) who oversees the CDC's Family Health History Public Health Initiative.

Here’s what else he says about diseases that run in families but aren’t hereditary.

Q:   What can my family’s health history tell me about my risk for diseases that aren’t inherited?

A: If several members of your family have a condition that’s known to have an environmental cause (see below), then the risk of developing the condition can be greatly reduced by removing the cause or staying away from it.

Q: What are some non-hereditable diseases that can run in families?

A: For the most part, they’re infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis. We once thought diseases like tuberculosis were inherited. Avian flu is another infectious disease that shows up in family clusters. But unlike genetic transmission, the transmission of infectious diseases rarely happens across several generations. Even some chronic conditions like dental cavities seem to be found in several members of certain families, but they have a definite environmental cause.

Q: What are some of the environmental factors I should look for?

A: If several family members are exposed to the same occupational hazard, for example, it’s likely that some of them will show the conditions associated with such exposure. Quick examples are working in coal mines or working with asbestos or other chemical products that irritate the skin and mucous membranes.

Q: Are there behavioral or cultural factors too?

A: Most certainly. The ways we approach smoking, alcohol consumption, and food preparation are heavily influenced by culture. Of course, the health risks are higher in cultures that favor heavy smoking and alcohol consumption and prepare their food using unhealthy amounts of some ingredients, such as excessive salt and fats. Unhealthy cooking habits, such as excessive use of frying techniques, also increase risk.

The Key to Your Health: Stick out your tongue ... and ask your relatives to do the same! Knowing your family's health history can help you identify your risks and take preventive action. Read more here.

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