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Why is it important to know my family health history?

Dr. Miriam S. Buckberg, MD
Family Practitioner

Talking with your family members about their health history can seem daunting, but it is important. While you can’t change the genetic risk you have, knowing about that risk can help you take preventive measures such as making lifestyle changes. Healthy eating habits and regular exercise, for instance, are important for all of us, but could be even more important for people with a family history of heart disease. When you have that conversation, write down what Grandma or Uncle Joe tells you, and the next time you see your primary care physician, pass the information along. It could help extend your life.

Family members share many traits and circumstances that influence their health and that is true across generations. A family history of chronic diseases, such as certain cancers, coronary heart disease and diabetes could indicate a greater risk of developing that disease.

Carrie Bilicki
Oncology Nursing Specialist

Traditionally, genetics has been a field of rare diseases caused by single gene mutations that affect few individuals. Since the completion of the human genome project, medicine has begun to rapidly gain knowledge into how our genes contribute to complex common diseases such as heart disease, strokes, neurological disease and cancer. With increased understanding of the genetic basis of common and chronic health problems affecting both children and adults, this allows a physician to improve their ability to diagnose, manage, treat and possibly prevent many disorders.

A family medical history can help your doctor interpret the history of disease in your family and identify patterns that may be relevant to your own health. Your doctor may use your family medical history to:

  • Assess your risk of certain diseases
  • Recommend treatments or changes in diet or lifestyle habits to reduce the risk of disease
  • Determine which diagnostic tests to order
  • Determine the type and frequency of screening tests
  • Determine whether you or your family members should get a specific genetic test
  • Identify a condition that might not otherwise be considered
  • Identify other family members who are at risk of developing a certain disease
  • Assess your risk of passing conditions on to your children

Medical problems are often linked to genetics. By knowing your family history, you will know which diseases you are more likely to suffer from. But also realize that family history is only part of your medical background. Your lifestyle, such as diet and exercise, also play a large role in your overall health.

It is important to know your family history because it can influence the way you live your life; learning and knowing about your family health history can help you make healthy decisions. It’s one of the cheapest and easiest ways to improve your health and the health of your family. It is also important to share this information with your physician, as this can help them provide healthcare tailored to you.

It is also imperative to keep updating your family health history; this is not a one-time collection. You should also share this information with your family, so that they are well-informed, too.

Knowing your family history from a health perspective means you and your relatives are now health aware. This may motivate you to schedule screenings at appropriate times and to engage in lifestyle changes that target and reduce specific disease risks. For example, if you find out that an aunt and some cousins have diabetes, you may decide to lose any excess weight, begin an exercise program and get yearly screenings for diabetes. The same holds true for heart disease, certain cancers, arthritis and other chronic conditions.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.