Family Health History: What’s The Benefits?

21 June 2019

Most of us know that our risk of disease can be reduced by eating a healthy balanced diet, exercising and not smoking. But, did you know that your family history may be one of the strongest influences on your risk for developing diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer? By knowing your family health history, that is, keeping a record of illnesses and medical conditions affecting your family members, you can lower your risk of developing health problems.

medical history form

Here’s what you need to know

"Let's be clear: A family medical history report can't predict your future health. It only provides information about risk"

As well as sharing your environment, lifestyle and habits with your family members, you may also share and inherit genes that might cause or increase your risk of medical conditions. It can be fascinating to know what you might be susceptible to, and the knowledge lets you keep on top of regularly getting tested for things you may find in your results.

Everyone’s family history of disease is different, and revealing your own can help you to identify patterns that might be relevant to your own health. The key features of a family history that may increase risk are:

  • Diseases that occur at an earlier age than expected (ten to twenty years before most people get the disease)
  • Disease in more than one close relative
  • When a relative is diagnosed with a disease that does not usually affect a certain gender (for example, breast cancer in a male)
  • Certain combinations of diseases within a family (for example, breast and ovarian cancer, or heart disease and diabetes)

If your family has one or more of these risk factors, your family history may hold important clues about your risk for disease.

historical medical method

How to collect your family health history

You may know a lot about your family health history or only a little. To get the complete picture, you can:

  • Use family gatherings as a time to talk about health history.
  • Look at death certificates and family medical records.
  • Collect information about all your family members, including your parents, sisters, brothers, half-sisters, half-brothers, children, grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews.
  • Gather information on major medical conditions, causes of death, age at disease diagnosis, age at death, ethnic background, and DNA tests.

Be sure to update the information regularly and share what you’ve learned with your family and with your doctor.

Genetic testing may also help determine if you or your family members are at risk. Even with inherited forms of disease, steps can be taken to reduce your risk.

Take a look at this news article in the Daily Mail about a small child being tested for a gene responsible for increasing the risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer. Despite the news being very unsettling, it is still uncertain whether the young girl will develop the disease in future, and is an example of how it can be useful in knowing how at risk you are in developing certain diseases and genetic conditions.

Health, life style, family history, rest, environment, diet, sleep, hygiene, exercise, stress, health care, relationships - healthy life essentials

What If You Have No Family History?

Even if you don’t have a history of a particular health problem, you could still be at risk. This could be because:

  • You may be unaware of disease in some family members
  • You could have family members who died young before they had a chance to develop chronic conditions such as heart disease, dementia, diabetes, or cancer
  • Your lifestyle, personal medical history, and other factors influence your chances of getting a disease

family health history

What information should be included in a family medical history?

If possible, your family medical history should include at least three generations. Compile information about your grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, siblings, cousins, children, nieces, nephews and grandchildren. For each person, try to gather the following information:

  • Gender
  • Date of birth
  • Ethnicity
  • Medical conditions
  • Mental health conditions, including alcoholism or other substance abuse
  • Pregnancy complications, including miscarriage, stillbirth, birth defects or infertility
  • The age when each condition was diagnosed
  • Lifestyle habits, including diet, exercise and tobacco use
  • For deceased relatives, age at the time of death and cause of death

risk factor, family history, diet, age, weight, lifestyle, lifestyle, inactivity - health risk factors

Researching your family health history is not a necessity, but it is helpful

In many cases, adopting a healthier lifestyle can reduce your risk for diseases that run in your family. Screening tests, such as diabetes screening, mammograms, and colorectal cancer screening, help find early signs of disease. Finding disease early can often mean better health in the long run.

Be proactive in safeguarding your health and that of your family by looking into the genetic background of your family’s health history.

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