You’re usually asked to share or update your family health history when you visit a provider for the first time, or the first time in a while. While this might feel like a daunting task, it’s worth it when it comes to your health. And the holidays are an opportune time of year to gather information from relatives you may not see as often.
Summit Health primary care provider John Allen, MD, shares why knowing your family health history is important and how you can use it to your advantage. He also offers tips on what information to collect and share with your provider and loved ones.
A family health history includes the diseases and health conditions in your family. Because families share genes and sometimes environments and lifestyles, family health history can reveal patterns of health problems, such as:
- Certain types of cancer
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Thyroid disorders
These patterns don’t guarantee that you’ll develop a particular condition, but your risk for it may be higher. Knowing this allows you to take steps to lower your risk.
Which family members should I include?
Dr. Allen says more information is better, starting with your immediate family and including grandparents, aunts, and uncles. “It’s most helpful to know your parents’ and siblings’ history since close relatives share the most genetic similarity to you. However, collect as much history as you can. Significant patterns can be seen across several generations,” he explains.
When gathering family health history, try to find out the following:
- Current ages for all living relatives
- Any health conditions that family members have had
- Age at the time of diagnosis
- Cause of death if they’ve passed away and how old they were when they died
- Ethnicity — some health issues are more common in certain ethnic groups
How will my provider use family health history to help me?
Your family history helps your providers know what to look out for, such as early warning signs of potential health problems. They also can recommend screening, testing, and lifestyle changes to lower your risk of disease.
- Early cancer screening: Your provider may recommend getting a mammogram, colonoscopy, or prostate cancer screening earlier than people at average risk. Breast and prostate cancer and/or multiple types of cancers within the family may warrant genetic counseling. “This can make a huge difference in detecting and treating cancer early,” says Dr Allen.
- Regular check-ups: It’s a good idea to see a primary care provider every year. And routine visits are opportunities to monitor disease risk factors like high blood pressure and high cholesterol, which can be treated to reduce your disease risk.
Dr. Allen adds that family health history may explain abnormal findings in blood tests, such as blood cell count, though these are typically not serious. “You may not have full expression of a disease. However, many people have traits or partial expression that’s passed from generation to generation,” he explains.
- Additional testing: Your provider may refer you to a genetic counselor for other diseases that run in families. This professional can help determine whether genetic testing is right for you and understand your treatment options. Or your provider may connect you with a specialist for additional diagnostic testing.
While these measures can keep you in better health, so can adopting a healthier lifestyle. Getting regular exercise, practicing healthy eating habits, maintaining a healthy weight, and quitting unhealthy behaviors like smoking can also reduce your risk of developing many chronic diseases.
Tips for collecting your family health history
Collecting your family health history is time well spent for your health and your family’s. Dr. Allen suggests some ways to get, store, and maintain health information:
- Talk to your family. Ask your relatives about conditions they have or had and when they were diagnosed — you might learn more than you already knew. See if you can get copies of medical records or other documents, such as death certificates, to help with information-gathering.
- Organize your information. Record the information your relatives provide in a notebook or digital device. Take this record to provider visits for easy reference. “It can be a lot to remember on the spot,” says Dr. Allen.
- Keep information up to date. Add to your family history document whenever you learn new information. “Consider updating your family history on the patient portal before your visit,” he suggests.
You may have reasons for not knowing all your family history, such as adoption or family estrangement — and that’s OK. Just share what you do know as part of your routine health care.
“You should still have regular preventive visits — annual physical, OB-GYN, eye exams, and more — so you’re up to date with routine screenings,” says Dr. Allen. “This will be your best opportunity to detect disease early and intervene.”