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Using family history information to promote healthy lifestyles and prevent diseases; a discussion of the evidence

Liesbeth Claassen1*, Lidewij Henneman1, A Cecile JW Janssens2, Miranda Wijdenes-Pijl1, Nadeem Qureshi3, Fiona M Walter4, Paula W Yoon5 and Danielle RM Timmermans1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Public and Occupational Health, EMGO Institute for Health and Care Research, VU University Medical Center, P.O. Box 7057, 1007 MB, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

2 Department of Public Health and Department of Epidemiology, Erasmus MC, Dr. P. O. Box 2040, 3000 CA Rotterdam, The Netherlands

3 Division of Primary Care, Graduate Medical School, University of Nottingham, Derby City General Hospital, Uttoxeter Road, Derby DE 22 3DT, UK

4 General Practice and Primary Care Research Unit, Department of Public Health and Primary Care, Institute of Public Health, University of Cambridge, Robinson Way, Cambridge CB2 0SR, UK

5 Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention, Centers for Disease Prevention and Control, 4770 Buford Hwy, NE Atlanta, GA 30341, USA

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BMC Public Health 2010, 10:248  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-10-248

Published: 13 May 2010



A family history, reflecting genetic susceptibility as well as shared environmental and behavioral factors, is an important risk factor for common chronic multifactorial diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes and many cancers.


The purpose of the present paper is to discuss the evidence for the use of family history as a tool for primary prevention of common chronic diseases, in particular for tailored interventions aimed at promoting healthy lifestyles. The following questions are addressed: (1) What is the value of family history information as a determinant of personal disease risk?; (2)How can family history information be used to motivate at-risk individuals to adopt and maintain healthy lifestyles in order to prevent disease?; and (3) What additional studies are needed to assess the potential value of family history information as a tool to promote a healthy lifestyle?


In addition to risk assessment, family history information can be used to personalize health messages, which are potentially more effective in promoting healthy lifestyles than standardized health messages. More research is needed on the evidence for the effectiveness of such a tool.