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People should be nosy about what Aunt Minnie died of or what chronic diseases other relatives have had because it may reveal inherited hazards in the family, a genetics expert says.

Questions about diseases in the family are not offensive if they are framed as requests to help future generations, and "you really have an obligation to ask because it may be something that somebody other than you is at risk for," said Judith Hall, professor of medical genetics at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver."Older members have an obligation to pass along the information they have," Hall said after a recent science writers conference sponsored by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

"I think it's absolutely legitimate to ask for an autopsy report," which can reveal inherited conditions such as hemochromatosis, a buildup of iron in the tissues that can complicate other diseases, she added.

For the family history, questions should focus on causes of death, chronic illnesses, reasons for hospitalization, long-term medication or chronic medical care before age 50, cancer before age 60, cancer in both breasts, diseases that killed more than one family member, and heart attacks or strokes before age 50.

The information should be passed on to relatives and the family doctor.

Every person carries five to eight genes that can increase the risk of disease in offspring if the other parent has a corresponding genetic defect, Hall said. For example, one in 20 Caucasians carries the defective gene that causes cystic fibrosis; one in 10 blacks carries the sickle cell anemia gene.