What do you turn to your family for? Families are often a source of love, support, inspiration and much more. But do you turn to family members for information that could help to protect your health? You should! Families share genes, environment and lifestyle, and together, those factors can provide clues to medical conditions that may run in a family. Health care professionals use your family health history to help determine whether you, other family members or future generations may have an increased risk of developing a certain condition.
If a close family member has a chronic condition such as heart disease, certain cancers, diabetes, high blood pressure or stroke, you may have a higher risk of developing that condition, too. A family health history may even tell your health care provider something about your risk for diseases that are different from the ones your relatives have. It is common for different types of autoimmune diseases to affect different members of a single family. A family history can also provide information about the risk of rarer conditions, such as cystic fibrosis or sickle cell anemia, which are caused by mutations, or changes, in a single gene.
Knowing your family health history allows you to take steps to reduce your health risks. For example, if there’s a history of cancer, your health care provider might recommend earlier and more frequent screenings. If you know you have a higher risk of heart disease or diabetes based on your family history, you may choose to make lifestyle changes such as adopting healthier eating habits and getting more exercise to help with reducing your risk.
How to create a family health history
A family reunion can provide a wonderful opportunity to gather health information from parents and grandparents, children, siblings, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews. You should aim for health details from three generations for your family history. Ask about what major medical conditions have been diagnosed and at what age. For deceased family members, record the age of the onset of disease and the age and cause of death.
To record and organize your family health history, you can use an online tool created by the Surgeon General called My Family Health Portrait. It creates a family health history that’s easy to share with your health care provider and other family members.
Discuss your family health history with your primary care provider at your next appointment.