Family health history: A key to disease prevention and early diagnosis

One way to protect your health is by knowing your family’s medical history. It’s important to have an accurate record of diseases and health conditions passed down in your family. This information can help your provider have a complete understanding of your risk factors for different types of diseases.

What is a family medical history? Why is it important?

Your family history takes several factors into account:

  • Shared health conditions that may be linked to genetics
  • Common behaviors including exercise habits and food preferences
  • Environmental factors — because family members often reside in the same region

Though you can’t change your genes, you can change behaviors. For example, smoking and obesity are risk factors for several chronic diseases. Also, people with a hereditary condition may need to start screening early to find signs of the disease.

Share as much data about your family’s health as possible with your provider. He or she can then take steps to prevent or diagnose disease early, when it’s most treatable.

Diseases passed down through family lines

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most people have at least one chronic disease in their family health history. Examples of chronic diseases include:

Breast and ovarian cancer

You are at a higher risk for breast cancer or ovarian cancer if you have a parent, sibling or child with the condition. However, it’s vital to collect family health history from grandparents, aunts and cousins too. Some breast cancers are the result of inherited mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene.

Colorectal cancer

You are at higher risk for colorectal cancer if you have multiple relatives with the same diagnosis, particularly if they received a diagnosis before age 50. A family history of polyps, often not cancerous, is also important to share with your doctor.

Diabetes

Having a first-degree relative (parent or sibling) with diabetes puts you at higher risk for developing the condition yourself. Diabetes can lead to other health problems such as heart or kidney disease, stroke or blindness.

Heart disease

Conditions such as high blood pressure or high blood cholesterol can run in families. And there are many other forms of heart disease — such as coronary heart disease and arrhythmias — that may have a genetic link. Collect information from first-degree relatives and grandparents, as well as uncles, aunts and cousins from both of your parents’ families.

Damaging levels of iron in organs (hemochromatosis)

Some people have a hereditary disorder known as hemochromatosis. With this condition, too much iron can build up in different organs, joints or glands. High levels of iron can be toxic and lead to tissue and organ damage. Talk with family members to determine if liver damage, heart problems, arthritis or diabetes are common, as these could be linked to hereditary hemochromatosis.

Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis causes bones to become weak and more prone to breaks. This disease is more common among women age 65 or older. If your parents or grandparents experienced a broken bone, particularly a broken hip, your doctor might want to screen you for osteoporosis before age 65.

How to develop a family health portrait

Experts recommend using family gatherings to collect information. Talk with aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins about the conditions people have had. If available, look at death certificates or family health records of deceased family members. Try to gather this information to share with your provider:

  • Major medical conditions family members have had
  • Age at diagnosis
  • Causes and ages of death
  • Ethnic background

Ways to reduce your risks for familial diseases

In many instances, your provider may recommend lifestyle changes to decrease your risk for familial diseases. These four lifestyle changes may reduce your risk of genetic disorders:

  • Stop smoking: Tobacco contains cancer-causing chemicals that decrease the effectiveness of anti-cancer genes.
  • Exercise: Physical activity can promote good gene changes.
  • Improved nutrition: Eating more raw fruits, veggies and nuts may help turn off the genes linked to heart disease or trigger tumor-suppressor genes to fight cancer.
  • Reduced stress: Stress may turn on genes associated with inflammation. Meditation or yoga could reduce the likelihood that those genes are activated.

With knowledge at hand, your provider may recommend screening tests or decide to start them earlier than generally recommended. Examples of screenings to help spot disease early are:

Your doctor might also recommend genetic testing for cancer to determine whether you have known gene mutations.

For more information about how family medical history can be beneficial to your own health, talk with your primary care provider.


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