Know your health history

Know your health history

It’s all relative

Many of us are at greater risk of certain disorders and diseases if they’re part of our family health history, but can those risks be minimised?

Hereditary diseases and disorders are passed down from one generation to another genetically. They’re transmitted, or inherited, via defective genes contained in chromosomes. Multifactorial inheritance disorders are a group of health conditions that, much like eye and skin colour and height, are passed on genetically. However, they can be affected by a combination of mutations in multiple genes and environmental factors.

Four of the most common inherited disorders are:

Type 1 diabetes


Recognised as an auto-immune disease, type 1 diabetes occurs as a result of the body’s immune system turning on itself and attacking the cells of the pancreas that produce and release insulin. When enough of these beta islet cells have been destroyed, the body’s unable to produce enough insulin to efficiently regulate blood sugar. Although the disease usually develops during childhood or adolescence, it can also appear in adulthood. Genetics and family history are two of the most common risk factors for type 1 diabetes, with about a one in 17 chance of developing it if your father has type 1 diabetes, and between one in 25-100 if your mother has type 1 diabetes, depending how old she was when you were born (the risk increases if she gave birth after the age of 25).

Health risks 

Over time, complications from type 1 diabetes can impact major organs and nervous systems in the body, including
kidney, heart, eye, blood vessel and general nerve damage. It can also result in pregnancy complications such as birth defects, stillbirth or miscarriage, and can cause mouth and skin conditions, including bacterial and fungal infections.

Symptoms include: 

  • Extreme hunger
  • Increased thirst
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Blurred vision
  • Irritability and mood changes
  • Frequent urination
  • Bed-wetting
  • Fatigue and weakness

What can you do? 

Unfortunately, there are no known prevention methods or cures for type 1 diabetes. However, researchers are making headway in studies on preventing further destruction of the beta islet cells in those who’ve been diagnosed early. If your family health history includes type 1 diabetes, visit your doctor to be tested. Managing blood sugar levels with insulin, lifestyle and diet can control the disease.

High blood pressure (hypertension)


Hypertension is a result of high pressure in the arteries, the vessels that transport blood from the heart to the body. Your blood pressure reading is always given as two numbers. The top number, the systolic blood pressure, refers to the pressure in the arteries as the heart contracts, while the bottom number, the diastolic pressure, refers to the pressure as the heart relaxes. A healthy reading is below 120/80; elevated blood pressure is 120/80-129/80, and
130/80 or above is considered high. Risk factors include age and sex, with men under 65 more likely than women to have high blood pressure, while women over 65 are at greater risk than men. Having one or more close family members with hypertension doubles your risk of developing the condition.

Health risks 

Complications of hypertension can include kidney damage and disease, brain damage and stroke, heart disease, hardening of the arteries and eye damage.

Symptoms include: 

  • Nausea
  • Headache
  • Blurred vision
  • Dizziness
  • A pulsating feeling in the head or neck
  • Shortness of breath

What can you do? 

While high blood pressure may run in the family, there are lifestyle choices you can make to prevent and manage the condition:

  • Manage stress levels. Excessive stress can lead to increased blood pressure, and can increase the likelihood of engaging in unhealthy behaviours, like smoking and alcohol consumption.
  • Exercise regularly. Physical activity is great for your heart and circulatory system, which helps with
    raised blood pressure.
  • Eat a healthy diet. A diet high in sodium, sugar, saturated fats and calories increases the risk of hypertension, while healthier choices like leafy greens and oily fish can reduce the risk.
  • Cut back on alcohol and tobacco. Both are linked to increased blood pressure and damaged arteries.

Heart disease


Heart disease refers to a variety of conditions that affect the functioning of the heart, the most common being coronary artery disease. This occurs when cholesterol plaque builds up inside the artery walls and can eventually
cause the arteries to block, leading to decreased blood flow. Contributing risk factors for heart disease include
high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes and family history.

Symptoms include: 

  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Nausea
  • Chest pain, which may radiate to the neck, arms or back
  • Sweating Shortness of breath

Health risks

Coronary artery disease can lead to serious conditions such as blood clots in the arteries, which can leave them
completely blocked. This can result in a myocardial infarction, or heart attack, as part of the heart muscle isn’t receiving oxygen-rich blood and essentially begins to die. If the situation isn’t treated quickly, the affected part of the heart can’t be revived and will become scar tissue which affects the heart’s ability to pump blood effectively, causing abnormal heart arrhythmias associated with sudden cardiac death.

What can you do? 

Fortunately, a family history of heart disease doesn’t mean it’s an inescapable fate. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle can
lower your risk of coronary artery disease by almost 50%:

  • Maintain a healthy weight by exercising regularly and eating a balanced, nutritious diet.
  • Avoid smoking and excessive alcohol consumption.
  • Take measures to control high blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol.


Cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal, malignant cells in the body which infiltrate normal, healthy body tissues. With hereditary cancers, it’s the abnormal gene, not the cancer itself, which is inherited. The most common
hereditary cancers include breast and ovarian. In families where many women develop breast and/or ovarian cancer,
often at an unusually young age and sometimes develop more than one cancer (like cancer in both breasts, or ovarian and breast cancer), it’s referred to as hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome (HBOC). HBOC is most
often a result of an inherited mutation in either the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene. A mutation in BRCA1 significantly increases the risk of breast and ovarian cancer in women, and having close relatives with these mutations means you have a 50% chance of having them too.

Health risks 

Breast and ovarian cancers can metastasise and spread to other areas of the body, where they can cause damage
to the immune and excretory systems, the skin, skeletal and muscular systems, the nervous system and various organs.

Symptoms include

Cancer symptoms and signs vary, depending on the type of cancer, although generally they include weight loss, pain, fatigue, changes in the skin, unusual bleeding, persistent voice changes and coughing, lumps and tissue masses, and changes in bowel and bladder function.

What can you do?

If you have a family history of cancer, you should regularly go for cancer screenings and have your genes tested
to find out if you carry the mutated BRCA genes. Genetic counselling is available, where professionals can help
estimate your risk of cancer based on your history and suggest steps for lowering your susceptibility.


This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis and treatment. Always consult your GP or a medical specialist for specific information regarding your health.


Nolwazi Dhlamini

About Caitlin Geng

Your Family’s Content Editor, and a real word nerd who loves reading and writing. She was recently married, in 2018, and is a ‘mom’ to two loveable pugs. Caitlin received 3rd place in the ‘Galliova Up and Coming Food/Health Writer of the Year’ category in 2019!


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