What if there was a magical way to foresee what medical issues you and your children are likely to encounter? Well, there is – to a degree. Tracing the illnesses of your parents, grandparents and other blood relatives can help your doctor predict the disorders to which you may be at risk and take action to keep your family healthy. This is called a family health history.
It can make a big difference in your future – and, since Thanksgiving is National Family History Day, it’s the perfect season to do it.
Why a family health history?
The American Medical Association says gathering a complete and accurate family medical history is becoming more important as genetic medicine finds more links between genes and diseases. In fact, more than 4,000 diseases are thought to stem from mutated genes inherited from at least one parent.
Disorders like heart disease and many cancers are thought to arise from a combo of genes and environmental factors. Other conditions or diseases that run in families include diabetes, heart disease, asthma, cancer, osteoporosis – and even rare diseases like hemophilia, cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia. High blood pressure is common, too.
What is it?
A family health history contains info about you and your close relatives. Family members share genes, environments, lifestyles, behavior choices and cultures. You’re taking a "picture" of all these characteristics, which provides important clues about risk factors for many chronic conditions.
Risk factors do not guarantee that you will contract a disease; however, they increase your chances.
Preparing a history
You’ll want to note major medical conditions and causes of death – along with the age that a family member developed a disease and age at time of death. With chronic diseases, like diabetes or heart disease, record lifestyle factors (smoking, alcohol use, lack of physical activity and diet habits). Note birth defects or learning disabilities; some of these conditions tend to run in families, too.
But don’t start so heavy. Begin by chatting about things like hair and eye color, or height. Here are 10 questions to ask your family, adapted from the Genomics Program of the Utah Department of Health:
- What traits seem to run in our family?
- Did family members have any health problems?
- How old were family members when the health problem started or was diagnosed?
- How old were family members when they died? (Use approximate ages if the exact dates aren’t known.)
- What were the reasons they died? (Note if the cause of death was unknown.)
- Were there any pregnancy losses or babies born with birth defects?
- Where were family members born? (Ethnicity can be a risk factor for some health problems.)
- Did any family members smoke? If so, how long and how much?
- What other lifestyle habits did family members have? (For example: exercise habits, over or underweight, addictive behaviors)
- What types of allergies did family members have? (Examples: hay fever, food or medication allergies)
A few "red flags": Several closely-related people had the same or related conditions (such as a sudden death in someone who appeared healthy), cancer, diabetes and high blood pressure.
What to do once it’s done
To start, bring it to your health care provider, so you can discuss what you’ve found, suggests the Michigan Cancer Consortium. Based on the details, your doctor might refer you to a genetics specialist or recommend early screening. But remember: While finding a pattern of disease indicates an increased risk, it doesn’t guarantee that you or your kids will develop the problem.
Use your family history to make healthy lifestyle choices. Talk with your health care provider about ways in which you can change your diet and exercise habits to reduce your risk for many conditions.
Share what you’ve learned about your family health history and healthy lifestyle choices with your family.
And keep adding to your family health history, even after these initial discussions. It’s a lifelong process that pays healthy dividends.
Compiling a family history takes a bit of time and effort, but it creates a record that can help improve the health of your family for generations to come.