Living a healthy lifestyle brings to mind many things, like exercise, eating well and staying hydrated, but knowing your family tree might not be one of the first things you think of. However, creating a family health history is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. Certain conditions tend to run in families, so knowing about the health of family members can help you and your doctor create a more appropriate plan for healthy living.
What is a Family Health History?
A family health history is a record of medical information about a person and their close relatives. It’s used by healthcare professionals to identify individuals at higher risk for certain conditions and recommend prevention programs to help control risk factors. A family health history that suggests a connection with a disease or condition doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll develop it, it just means you’re at a higher risk. And not finding a link doesn’t mean you won’t develop certain conditions.
The Importance of a Family Health History
Blue eyes and curly hair aren’t the only traits you can inherit from your parents. But recognizing that your grandmother passed on a higher risk for breast cancer is not as easy to see. That’s why it’s important to create a family health history that’s as complete as possible. It helps you and your doctor identify family traits that may put you at an increased risk for a number of medical conditions. Diseases and conditions with a hereditary link include:
- Heart disease
- Blood clots
- Alzheimer’s disease and dementia
- Autoimmune diseases
- High cholesterol and high blood pressure
Your Family Health History Helps Your Doctor
Sharing your family health history with your doctor or healthcare team is important. They can help you interpret the information and identify risk factors that might impact your current or future health. Your doctor can use family health history to help you adjust your current lifestyle for better health. For example, they may suggest prevention tips or recommend screening or testing options. Your healthcare provider helps you determine preventive steps to take now that can help protect against hereditary diseases, including the following steps:
- Creating a prevention program personalized for you
- Making lifestyle changes
- Testing to discover disease early
- Using treatments or medication to try to prevent disease
How Your Family Health History Affects Your Health
You can’t change genes, but you can change habits. Knowing your family health history puts you ahead of the curve and gives you the opportunity to make changes to your lifestyle to help reduce the risk of developing a hereditary condition. When you know your family health history, you can be more proactive about your health.
Gathering Your Family Health History
The more information you can collect about the health of family members, the better. But even if your family health history is incomplete, it can help you and your doctor develop a stronger picture of your overall health. Gather health information from immediate blood relatives, including:
- Your children
- Aunts and uncles
- Nieces and nephews
Tips for Talking to Family Members
It’s often difficult to talk to family members about health issues. To make the conversations more comfortable, explain why you want to know about their medical history and let them know you’re willing to share your health information with them too. Many people prefer one-on-one conversations, but some families appreciate sitting down for a group discussion so everyone can share information at once. If you’re estranged from members of your family, talk to family members you’re connected with and get as much information as possible. Gather information related to:
- Major medical issues – Learn about major medical issues that family members have been diagnosed with.
- Cause of death – For family members who have passed away, try to discover the cause of death and how old they were when they died.
- Age of onset – Ask at what age family members were diagnosed with a medical condition to look for patterns of early onset.
- Ethnic background – Try to identify your ethnic background because different ethnic groups have different levels of risk for certain medical conditions.
- Environment – Not only do you share genes with your family, you also share environments, behaviors and habits. Understanding your family history can help you and your doctor identify shared environmental factors that can impact your health.
Questions to Ask
Here are some questions to ask family members as you share health information:
- At what age did my relative pass away, and what was the cause of death?
- Are there health conditions that are common in the family?
- Does our family have a history of pregnancy loss or birth defects?
- What allergies do members of our family have?
- What is my ethnicity?
Record the Details
As you gather the health information of various family members, create a system for recording and storing the information in a way that is clear and secure. You can fill out a health history form for each member of the family or keep a written or electronic copy of their information. Be sure to store all information securely, whether you have a written or digital copy.
Learning about your family health history and sharing that information with your doctor or healthcare team helps you develop a more complete picture of your health. This information can help you take preventive steps that can lead to better health outcomes in the future.