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Why is it so important to understand your family health history?

Posted January 03, 2022 by Lynn Hamrich, M.D.

African American family

You may have heard someone comment on a shared feature that you have with a family member, or heard someone is the spitting image of a relative.  It’s true family members share similar looks, but they also share genes — which aren’t as easy to see. For instance, you may be unaware that you also share your great-grandmother’s increased risk for heart disease.

When it comes to your health, knowing your family’s traits that you can’t see is important because it may mean you are at high risk for certain conditions or illnesses. That’s why it’s vital to build a family health history. It offers clues to your health risks and gives your care team a more complete picture of your health.

A family health history is a record of health information, conditions and diseases about you and your close family relatives. Understanding your family’s health history may be the strongest influence on knowing your risk of developing hereditary conditions and diseases, including:

These conditions can be almost entirely dependent on genetic inheritance from your ancestors. For example, if you have a close family member with breast cancer, you are more likely to develop that disease yourself, especially if more than one close relative has — or had — the disease, or a family member got it at a younger age than usual.

Living a healthy lifestyle, such as eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight and not smoking, is still very important. However, your family health history can alert you and your healthcare providers to areas where you might have a higher risk than the general population.

Building a family health history

Recording your family history doesn’t need to be complicated. Start by talking to close family relatives about their health and writing it down or electronically documenting it all in one place. Just be sure to continually update the information.

Have they had any major health problems? If so, when did they occur? How old was great-grandma when she died and what was the cause?

A family gathering or asking your parents is a great place to start the conversation. You just might learn something new, and everyone will benefit by better understanding and managing their personal health risks.

You’ll want to include information from three generations of biological relatives, including children, siblings, parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents and cousins. While gathering information, make sure your family history includes:

  • Major medical issues that can be inherited (i.e. injuries don’t apply)
  • The age they were diagnosed
  • The age and cause of death
  • Environmental factors, habits and behaviors, such as use of tobacco, working in a factory with certain exposures, etc.
  • Ethnic background

You may be wondering why environment and ethnic background matter. Families with the same culture and traditions tend to adopt the same behaviors, and research shows some diseases and conditions are more common in certain ethnic and racial groups than others.

For example, African-Americans have a higher risk of inheriting sickle cell anemia; Caucasians are at a higher risk of cystic fibrosis; Asians have a higher risk for tuberculosis; and Hispanics have a higher risk for cardiovascular disease.

What to do with this information

Once you have your family health history, now what? It’s important to store it in a safe place and make copies to share with your family and your healthcare providers so they can assess their risks

Don’t worry if the information is incomplete. Sharing any family health information you have is still very beneficial.

Together, you can discuss what risks are revealed and what steps to take to reduce them. Your healthcare provider may recommend the following to lower your risks: 

  • Lifestyle changes: Adjusting your lifestyle and behaviors in response to your higher risks can delay or, in some cases, prevent disease.
  • Screenings: Certain screenings, such as mammograms, blood-sugar tests or a colonoscopy, may be recommended at an earlier age or more frequently if your family history points to a higher risk for certain conditions. Genetic counseling also may be recommended.
  • Preemptive treatments: Where applicable, preemptive treatments, such as calcium and vitamin D supplements if you’re at higher risk for osteoporosis, may be recommended.

Your family history alone doesn’t determine if you will develop a disease or not. But, knowing the information puts you ahead of the game and enables you to be more proactive about your health. You and your healthcare providers can use your health history as a toolkit to assess your risks — and then do something about them.

Lynn M Hamrich, MD

Lynn M Hamrich, MD

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