From relatively minor maladies like ear infections to serious diseases like diabetes, a surprising number of childhood health problems have a genetic component. "At least 80 percent of medical conditions are inherited to some extent," says Nancy Mendelsohn, M.D., a pediatric geneticist at Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota, in Minneapolis.
Of course, you can't change your children's genes, but your own health history can motivate you to be extra diligent about screenings and risk-reducing strategies. Here are nine conditions that run in families, along with ways to protect your kids.
Allergies and Asthma
Hereditary Risk: High
Most Vulnerable: Children whose parents or siblings have a history of asthma or any type of allergy--whether to peanut butter, pets, pollen, or dust mites. "If a parent has allergy-triggered asthma, for instance, the child will be more prone to all allergic diseases, but especially to asthma," explains Scott Sicherer, M.D., a pediatric allergist at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, in New York City. If one parent has suffered from asthma or allergies, a child's risk is between 30 and 50 percent. Both parents? The risk can be as high as 80 percent.
Best Defenses: Breastfeeding has been shown to help prevent both asthma and allergic skin rashes. If allergies run in your family and you don't breastfeed (or if you need to supplement), you may want to use a hypoallergenic infant formula. Doctors recommend that you avoid peanuts (the most dangerous allergenic food) while nursing and even during pregnancy. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) currently advises that children with a family history of allergies shouldn't have dairy products before age 1, eggs before age 2, or peanut butter or seafood before age 3. Reducing exposure to pollen, mold, dust, and pet dander can also help decrease the risk of asthma and nasal allergies. If you do bring a pet into your home, however, it's best to do it when your child is a baby. Studies have found that children exposed to dogs or cats before age 1 may be less likely to develop allergies because their developing immune systems are less likely to learn to attack these allergens. If you suspect that your child has symptoms of asthma--including chronic coughing or wheezing--talk to your pediatrician because early treatment is important.