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Why it’s important to know your family health history
This record can give your doctor clues about your risk of certain diseases and help you stay healthy in the future. Here are some ideas to build yours.
Your family health history is a story that plays a role in your health. It’s a record of diseases and health conditions in your parents, brother and sisters, and other close relatives.1 And it’s connected to all the generations that came before you.
You share genes with your family members. That means a higher risk for chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis and cancer can be passed down from parents (or grandparents) to children.1 (Osteoporosis is a condition where your bones become weak and more likely to break.)
You and your family may have other traits in common, such as being good at sports or having curly hair. Or maybe you live in the same area, so the air you breath and water you drink are pretty much the same.2
All of these things figure into your family health history. And that’s vital information your doctor needs to help you stay well.
Why does your family health history matter anyway?
Your family health history isn’t a crystal ball. But it’s an important tool for your doctor. It can help identify:
- If you are at a higher risk of certain diseases
- If you may need to get tested for certain diseases
- If you may need to get preventive screenings earlier than usual
A recent study showed that only 37% of people said they had a lot of knowledge about their family’s health history.3 And 3% reported that they didn’t know anything about it at all.
The benefit of collecting your family health history? It allows you and your doctor to take steps that help prevent the diseases that run in your family. It can also help them decide which screening tests you get and how often.1,2 Regular screenings help catch diseases early, so you can be treated as soon as possible. That can mean better health in the long run.
Ready to track down your family health history? Use these tips to get started.
Tip #1: Write it down
Write down what you already know about your close relatives on both sides of your family. Include names, dates and birthplaces.
“The most important family members are your first-degree relatives,” says Sarah Kent, MD. She’s an Optum family medicine physician with USMD in Cross Roads, Texas. “So, your parents, siblings and children.” Start there, then move on to your grandparents, half-siblings, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews.
You might even know about some of your relatives’ health conditions and medications. Has your father broken his hip?4 Does your sister have high cholesterol?5 Jot everything down, so you know what gaps you need to fill in. Then prepare questions for your family members.
You could set up a time to chat with them on the phone or a video call. Or you could sit down with several family members in person.
Tip #2: Look for trends
Find out which medical conditions your family members have (or had). Ask how old they were when they were diagnosed.
If you find one or more relatives with a chronic disease, your risk for that same condition may go up, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.2
Dig into other details. Ask about other conditions, surgeries and other procedures, medications and emergency room visits. For example, if your grandmother has heart disease, find out if she also has diabetes or high blood pressure. Ask if she had a heart attack or heart surgery.6
Mental health problems and thyroid disorders are also helpful to note. These often run in families, Dr. Kent says.
Tip #3: Ask multiple family members
You may be unable to ask every family member about their health. And you may have to rely on your other relatives to fill in the blanks about someone who passed away.
Sometimes though, people’s memories may not be accurate. That’s why Dr. Kent recommends asking a few family members. “Some will say grandpa had stomach cancer, and others will say, ‘No, it was actually prostate cancer,’” she says.
Tip #4: Be sensitive
Some of your family members might not be used to talking about their health, especially mental health. Some won’t want to talk about it at all. But it’s OK to start the conversation.
Just be gentle when asking questions. You can reassure them that the information is helpful to your doctor. You’re asking so that you can stay on top of your health and wellness.
Tip #5: Stay organized
Keep everything you learn about your family health history in one place. This will help you track the information. You can keep it on your computer or write it down in a notebook. It also makes it easier to share the information with your doctor.
The U.S. Surgeon General designed a free web-based tool, My Family Health Portrait, for this purpose. You can use it to enter your family health history and learn about your risk for health conditions that run in families.
The tool also lets you print your family health history for your provider. You can update it as you collect more information.
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Putting your family health history to work
It’s important to know that having family members with a chronic disease does not necessarily mean you will get that disease.7
You can’t change your genes. But you can find ways to change unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking or eating too much junk food. Doing so can put you on the path to better health.
Based on your history, your doctor may also suggest certain screening tests. For example:
- Did a close family member have colorectal cancer before age 50? Your doctor may suggest that you get colonoscopies more often and start at a younger age.
- If a close relative had breast cancer, you might begin mammograms sooner. Or you might consider genetic testing or preventive drugs.
- Does heart disease run in your family? Your doctor will encourage you to eat a healthy diet, get more exercise, stop smoking and get screened for high cholesterol.
- If diabetes runs in your family, your doctor will discuss lifestyle changes that can help prevent it.
- If you have a family history of osteoporosis, your doctor may start screening you for it earlier
The goal is to catch health problems early, when they are most treatable, or to prevent them in the first place. So what are you waiting for? Get started on your family health history today.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Family Health History and Chronic Disease. Last reviewed May 5, 2023. Accessed September 13, 2023.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Family Health History: The Basics. Last reviewed May 5, 2023. Accessed September 13, 2023.
- Genetics in Medicine. Self-rated family health history knowledge among All of Us program participants. Published January 17, 2022. Accessed September 13, 2023.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Does Osteoporosis Run in Your Family? Last reviewed May 20, 2022. Accessed September 13, 2023.
- American Heart Association. Causes of High Cholesterol. Last reviewed November 6, 2020. Accessed September 13, 2023.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Family Health History of Heart Disease. Last reviewed June 16, 2023. Accessed September 13, 2023.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Family Health History for Adults. Last reviewed May 5, 2023. Accessed September 13, 2023.
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