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Family Medical History, Ethnicity and Diabetes


Updated November 27, 2007

Family medical history and ethnicity can provide great insights into health risks -- including the risk of developing diabetes.

Creating a Family Medical History

The Mayo Clinic recommends creating a chart similar to a family tree that also includes medical information for each relative. Of particular importance is asking:
  • Who had what disease(s)?
  • When was the disease diagnosed?
  • What was the treatment?

Gathering as much material as possible -- particularly about major health conditions such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease -- is recommended. Information should be included about parents, siblings, children and grandparents, even great- and great-great-grandparents, when available. Couples should record this information for both partners’ families.

Health information can be obtained by asking relatives directly, or by reading obituaries, death certificates, or military and pension records of those who have died.

If relatives are reluctant to discuss medical issues, it should be explained to them why knowing this information is important. For instance, a man who died of heart disease at an early age may pass risk factors for a similar heart condition on to his children and grandchildren. Being aware of such risk factors can be an important tool to help younger generations stay healthy.

Genetics and Diabetes

A family history of type 2 diabetes is a risk factor for developing the disease, but the American Diabetes Association says the risk is primarily for people who lead a Western lifestyle that includes eating too much fat and exercising too little.

There appears to be an increased risk for developing type 1 diabetes for those who have a parent or sibling with type 1 diabetes, but even with identical twins it’s quite possible for only one twin to have the disease.

Women with parents or siblings who have diabetes are at an increased risk of developing gestational diabetes.

There is also good evidence that some genetic variations inherited from parents increase the risk of developing diabetes. Current research has identified 10 different gene variations that appear to play a role in increasing the risk factor.

Ethnicity and Diabetes

Some people are at increased risk for developing diabetes because of their ethnic background.

Native Americans, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are at higher risk for developing type 2 diabetes than whites, who have a higher risk of developing type 1 diabetes.

Women of African or Hispanic ancestry have a higher risk of developing gestational diabetes than other women.

Do Family Risk Factors Predict the Development of Diabetes?

Having a risk factor for diabetes means there is an increased risk of developing the disease, but it does not guarantee the development of diabetes.

It’s impossible to change family history or genes. However, knowing that diabetes runs in the family can be motivation to minimize any other existing risk factors, including:

  • Obesity
  • High blood pressure
  • A sedentary lifestyle
A complete family history should be shared with a health care professional. He or she may recognize patterns and have a better idea of disease risk factors. Understanding risks is the first step in reducing them.


"The Genetics of Diabetes." Diabetes.org. American Diabetes Association. 8 Sep 2007 <http://www.diabetes.org/genetics.jsp>.

"National Diabetes Fact Sheet." CDC Diabetes Public Health Resource. 31 Jan. 2005. Centers for Disease Control. 8 Sep 2007 <http://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/pubs/estimates.htm>.

Krasner-Khait, K. “Nine Steps to a Health History.” (2000). Family Tree Magazine. 9 Sep 2007. <http://www.familytreemagazine.com/articles/oct00/health.html>.

“How to Compile Your Family Medical History.MayoClinic.com. 17 Nov 2005. Mayo Clinic. 9 Sep 2007.<http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/medical-history/HQ01707>.

"Genetics of Type 2 Diabetes." Diabetes and Genes in Disease. 10 July 1998. Human Genome Project and Diabetes. 6 Sep 2007 <http://darwin.nmsu.edu/~molbio/diabetes/disease.html>.

Florez, Jose, Kathleen Jablonski, Nick Bayley, Toni Pollin, Paul de Bakker, Alan Shuldiner, William Knowler, David Nathan, and David Altshuler. “TCF7L2 Polymorphisms and Progression to Diabetes in the Diabetes Prevention Program” New England Journal of Medicine 35520 Jul 2006 :241-250. 26 Sep 2007 <http://content.nejm.org/cgi/content/short/355/3/241>.

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