Whenever you visit a new healthcare provider for the first time, they are likely to ask you about your own history of diseases and conditions as well as the ones that run in your family.
You may know the specifics—that your grandmother died of a coronary or your uncle had prostate cancer—but family medical history is often shrouded in mystery and vagueness. You may have heard that your Aunt Colleen died of “female troubles,” but what does that mean? And what information should you give to your healthcare provider?
WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO KNOW YOUR FAMILY’S HEALTH HISTORY?
Learning your family’s health history can help you discover your risk for diseases that occur in your family at a higher rate than average. These diseases and disorders may be genetic or they may be a result of environment and lifestyle. For example, children raised by parents who smoke are much more likely to become smokers themselves.
Armed with a record of the illnesses suffered by your parents, grandparents and other blood relatives, you can share it with your doctor to help identify the disorders to which you may be at risk. You can also share it with other members of your family so that everyone is informed.
For example, after evaluating your family health information, your healthcare provider may recommend more frequent screenings, such as mammograms, colonoscopies or PSA tests. She might also recommend lifestyle changes to help offset your family history, such as quitting smoking, cutting back on salt intake, or getting regular exercise. Most important, it can help your doctor spot early warning signs of disease.
Family health history is also important if you’re planning to start a family. By learning of any genetic disorders or predispositions that may run in your family or your partner’s, you can be better equipped to protect yourself and your future offspring.
HOW TO GATHER INFORMATION
The best way to learn your family’s health history is by talking to your relatives. Ask if they have any information about health conditions and causes of death of other family members. Start with your parents, brothers and sisters. Include those of your spouse if you’re creating a record to be passed down to the next generation. Next, talk to or ask about more distant relatives, such as grandparents, grandchildren, aunts and uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews. Don’t forget to include half-brothers and half-sisters.
If talking to your relatives doesn’t fill in all the gaps, you can often learn the cause of death of relatives by reading their obituary or obtaining a death certificate from the department of public records in your state. Even if the information you gather is incomplete, whatever you learn can be useful. Be sure to include your own health information in your notes.
WHAT TO INCLUDE IN A FAMILY HEALTH HISTORY
Record the following information for each member of your immediate and extended family.
- full name (including maiden and married names, if applicable)
- year of birth and age (or year of death)
- major medical conditions and when each one developed (especially before age 60)
- related lifestyle issues (such as alcoholism or work environment)
You can input the information into a secure online tool, such as the CDC’s My Family Health Portrait or just make notes in a notebook or digital device. Keep your record in a safe place and update it regularly.
You might want to share your information with other close relatives, such as children or siblings, or any family members who helped you compile it. Just be sure the information can be encrypted or password-protected, and don’t share it without such safeguards. While confidentiality is important, even within families, health history shouldn’t be kept a secret from those who are affected.
WHEN A DISEASE RUNS IN YOUR FAMILY
If you discover that a certain disease has occurred in several close relatives, speak to your doctor. While a family history may reveal certain tendencies, it pays to remember that just because a disease runs in your family doesn’t mean that you will develop it too.
When sharing the information with your doctor, talk over any actions you might take to protect your health. He or she may recommend that you:
- Undergo genetic testing to learn more about your risks (your doctor can refer you to a specialist).
- Make lifestyle changes or start a treatment program to reduce your risk of developing a condition that’s common in your family.
- Get more regular check-ups or screenings for the indicated health conditions.
- Consider early intervention or preventive measures for the conditions that cause you concern.
Becoming more aware of the traits and predispositions for health conditions that run in your family can not only guide you in making healthy environment and lifestyle choices, it can also help your doctor provide better care for you.
“Family Health History for Patients and Families.” National Human Genome Research Institute. Last updated: October 6, 2020. https://www.genome.gov/Health/Family-Health-History/Patients-Families
“Family Health History: The Basics.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Page last reviewed October 3, 2019. https://www.cdc.gov/genomics/famhistory/famhist_basics.htm
“Family Medical History.” HealthDirect. The Australian Government Department of Health. Page last reviewed June 2019. https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/family-medical-history
“My Family Health Portrait: A Tool from the Surgeon General.” Public Health Genomics Database. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Page last updated May 1, 2020. https://phgkb.cdc.gov/FHH/html/index.html
“Why is it important to know my family history?” Medline Plus. U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://medlineplus.gov/genetics/understanding/inheritance/familyhistory/