Ken Hall took his mother to the hospital last year for complications from congestive heart failure and kidney issues. While there, she was diagnosed with diabetes, a disease his father had already been diagnosed with.
"It occurred to me that my dad's taking insulin shots twice a day, now she's going to have to start, I'm next," Hall said. "It's like a time bomb."
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So, at the beginning of the year, Hall, director of communications for Leadership Memphis, set out to defuse the bomb.
He isn't the only one taking charge of his future.
Hall decided to try to lose 20 pounds by his 50th birthday in February. He accomplished his mission by cutting out his almost daily fast-food drive-through habit, saying "no" to the Hostess cupcakes, and changing his lifelong view of exercise as something he "really tried to avoid." He began working out on the elliptical machine for a half-hour every day.
"It was pretty darn easy," he said of entering this regimen and his subsequent weight loss.
For 40-year-old Heather Griffin, the hardest part of her lifestyle change was cutting out sweets.
"I'm a cupcake freak," she laughs, "so in giving that up, that was more painful than running a half-marathon, actually."
But a day without cupcakes is nothing compared to the chemotherapy and radiation her sister, Tiffany Wolf, 31, of Denver, has gone through in her battle with malignant melanoma.
It's a struggle that prompted Griffin last year to begin training for the Chicago Marathon in honor of her sister, who is a runner, and to raise funds for the American Cancer Society's DetermiNation team. Griffin has since completed seven half-marathons as well. The goal for this year? To run the Chicago Marathon with her sister in October, she says, to give Tiffany "something to focus on to get through treatment."
While melanoma itself is not hereditary, cancer is, and attention paid to family medical history is as important as eating right and exercising.
"It's part of doing what you can with what you know about," said Dr. Terinell Beaver, an internist in Germantown, Tenn. "If you just look at cardiovascular disease, the risk factors are high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, smoking and family history. So the family history for cardiovascular disease is right up there with the rest."
The impetus for Melanie Spillman, 40, came as she watched her grandmother's seven-year battle with breast cancer. The bond with her grandmother, who Spillman says raised her, was a strong one, and the act of seeing her get smaller as she succumbed to the disease made a lasting impression.
"I never really thought about it; I was that person that didn't really exercise very much," Spillman said. "I don't want my body to get that weak and to have to be that dependent on people, because I think that's what really broke her is that she had to depend on people to get her teeth brushed, to eat, to sit up."
The daily regimen for the elementary school art teacher these days consists of jogging three miles and working out with exercise DVDs, including aerobics, yoga and Pilates. The former junk food junkie who "used to live off beer and Kraft macaroni and cheese" now eats from a menu of salad, fruit, seafood and grilled meats, which, she says, "just make me feel better."
While the addition of exercise and planning better meals to already hectic days filled with family and work can seem daunting, the positives far outweigh the negatives; from more energy to feeling better overall to peace of mind that you're putting up a fight against something that is essentially out of your control.
Hall, who has run several 5K races and has begun riding his bike on a local trail since his first-of-the-year about-face, is a little more attuned to his health now and says, "turning 50 was just like flipping a switch for me. I became suddenly aware of the need to take care of myself a little better."
It is never too late to begin living healthier as a preventive measure against hereditary diseases, says Beaver. And with the generation of baby boomers getting older, their children and grandchildren are looking for ways to combat illness sooner rather than later.