Our genes shape more than our facial features and hair type: many common health conditions like diabetes and heart disease also run in families. Since you may not be familiar with your closest relatives’ medical histories, doing a little bit of research and documenting what you learn is one of the most impactful things you can do for your health. Here’s how to make your family health history as valuable as possible to your healthcare providers.
The importance of family health history
We may not be able to control our genetic predispositions, but learning this information empowers you to make decisions that can protect or improve your health. Many conditions are influenced by both genetic and behavioral factors, and if you know that a family member was diagnosed with a preventable condition, you can take steps to lower your risk. In the case of certain cancers, learning of an increased risk allows your provider to make more informed screening recommendations.
Where to focus
When it comes to family health history, the more information you have, the better. Ideally, your records will include the health histories of both your immediate and extended family — first, second, and third-degree relatives from both sides of the family:
Your first-degree relatives include your parents, siblings, and children
Your second-degree relatives have one family member between you and include your grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and half siblings
Your third-degree relatives have two family members between you and include your great-grandparents, grand-aunts, grand-uncles, and first cousins
If you don’t have access to all of your relatives’ health histories, a partial record will still capture very useful information. Prioritize first-degree relatives, if possible — since you share the most genes with them, this information is most relevant to you.
In general, you don’t need to include relatives you aren’t related to by blood, such as aunts and uncles who married into the family, though if you are adopted, notes about your adoptive families’ behaviors and environmental health factors may be helpful.
What to include
The major health issues your relatives were or are diagnosed with are at the core of your family health history. It isn’t just the diagnoses themselves that matter — age of onset can also tell you more about your risk for certain health issues. And in cases where you may have only partial knowledge about a deceased relative, learning their cause of death can help paint a fuller picture of your family health history. With that in mind, here’s the most important information to gather.
To identify health problems that may run in your family, ask about all your relatives’ medical diagnoses. Focus on illnesses and diseases with a genetic component — conditions caused by other factors alone aren’t necessary to include. Common hereditary health issues include but aren’t limited to:
Asthma and allergies
Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia
Mental health disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder
A history of recurrent miscarriage or infertility
Age of diagnosis also offers important information about your health risks. For instance, if an immediate relative was diagnosed with colon cancer at a younger age, your doctor may suggest earlier screening to detect potential issues early on. You should also ask about any hospitalizations.
Age and cause of death
A thorough family health history includes the age and cause of death of any relatives who have passed away. If you are already familiar with their health histories and diagnoses, this information will tell you more about how their condition progressed. And if you have only limited information about their health, details about their death may offer more insight.
Habits and other health factors
Environmental health factors, habits, and behaviors are also relevant to your family health history for several reasons:
These are often shared among family members, in addition to genes, and can help you identify broader health patterns within your family tree
Knowing how additional risk factors may have contributed to a relative’s diagnosis can bring more clarity about your own risk and how to potentially lower it
Some health conditions are more prevalent among certain ethnicities. Learning more about your family’s ethnic heritage can offer additional insight into your risk for certain health issues, as well as your options. As an example, a gene mutation linked to breast and ovarian cancer is more common in women of Ashkenazi Jewish descent. If you belong to an ethnic group in whom certain health issues are more common, genetic counseling can clarify your risk.
In the case of breast and ovarian cancer, the CDC recommends genetic counseling if you have:
A first-degree relative with a diagnosis of breast or ovarian cancer
Two second-degree relatives on the same side of the family with a diagnosis of breast or ovarian cancer
After you’ve compiled your family health history, share what you have learned with your primary care provider, who will be able to recommend any necessary next steps. Ask them what your family’s medical history means for you, including recommended lifestyle changes, prevention tips, and screening options. Remember, genetics are only one of the factors that influence your health, and you have the power to change your habits and behaviors.
If you believe a genetic disorder may run in your family, your provider can refer you to a genetic counselor.
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This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.