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How to minimise your risk of contracting these three familial diseases

Does your family history determine your health status? While it may put you at greater risk for certain diseases, there are ways to minimise this with smart lifestyle choices.

One small thing: A simple start to making healthier food choices is to prepare more of your meals at home. Reduce your dependence on fast foods and avoid sugary drinks.

When a certain condition tends to occur more often in family members than is expected by chance alone, it's known as a familial disease. But if obesity, Type 2 diabetes or heart disease runs in your family, it doesn't necessarily mean you're destined to get them too.

Here's what you need to know about these conditions, and how to reduce your chances of developing them.

1. Obesity

Obesity does tend to run in families, probably because family members often have similar eating and exercise habits. "The increasing rates of obesity, particularly among young children and adolescents in South Africa, is primarily a result of unhealthy food choices (such as food high in bad fats, sugar and salt), physical inactivity and an increase in the consumption of fast food," says Professor Pamela Naidoo, head of the Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa.

What you can do about it
To reduce your risk of becoming obese, make healthy food choices and move more, starting today. Worried about your children? Professor Naidoo has this advice: "Parents can encourage their children to choose healthy foods by demonstrating these behaviours themselves. There is evidence to show that parents and immediate family members are the most powerful agents of socialisation, so the chances of young people making better life choices increase if parents and caregivers display these healthy behaviours themselves."

A simple start to making healthier food choices is by reducing the amount of sugar in your diet. Read more about easy ways to do that here.

2. Type 2 diabetes

Margot McCumisky, national manager for Diabetes South Africa in the Western Cape, says the closer your family relationship to someone with Type 2 diabetes, the higher your personal risk. But Type 2 diabetes also has additional risk factors, including obesity, lack of physical activity and poor diet.

What you can do about it
If you have a family history of Type 2 diabetes, don't lose heart. Studies have shown that it is possible to delay or even prevent Type 2 diabetes from developing by exercising and losing weight.

"Three-and-a-half million South Africans (about 6% of the population) have diabetes, but there are many more who are undiagnosed, as people do not always experience or recognise its symptoms," says McCumisky. "The primary treatment of Type 2 diabetes is to lose weight (if the person is overweight), have a regular routine of physical activity and eat a healthy, balanced diet. However, there is no magic pill or cure for diabetes, so self-care is vital."

3. Heart disease

Heart disease is often a family matter, say experts at Easydna.co.za, and there are certain features in a family's history that indicate genetic heart disorder. These include sudden cardiac death, heart failure at a young age, palpitations or abnormal rhythm at a young age, fainting or seizures, and more than one relative with the same type of heart disease.

Family history is a risk factor for hypertension since it tends to run in families, so it's essential to speak to your doctor about getting your blood pressure and cholesterol checked regularly. The higher your numbers, the greater your risk of heart attack or stroke.

What you can do about it
While these conditions can be inherited, a poor diet, smoking and a lack of exercise greatly increase your risk. The Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa reports that 80% of heart disease and strokes can be prevented. And one of the major culprits is too much salt in your diet. Eating too much salt can raise your blood pressure which, in turn, increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. Read more about salt and its effect on your health here.


If you have a question for our dietitians, click here, or to find a dietitian in your area, visit adsa.org.za. To get in touch with us, email healthhotline@pnp.co.za.