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Why Is It Important to Know Your Family Medical History?

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Knowing Family Medical History
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Why Is It Important to Know Your Family Medical History?

January 09, 2020

Feeling healthy and trying to prevent chronic and life-threatening diseases are likely already a big priority in your or your loved one’s life. Certain behaviors can reduce your risk, such as eating a healthy, well-balanced diet; exercising regularly; controlling your stress levels; and avoiding smoking and excessive alcohol consumption. Regular checkups and age-appropriate cancer screenings are also a step in the right direction. However, there’s a sometimes-overlooked part of preventive care you may not have considered – your family history. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), knowing your family health history of stroke, heart disease, a chronic disease or cancer and sharing it with your doctor means they can help you take steps to prevent disease and catch it early if it develops.

The Importance of Knowing Your Family Medical History

Just because you have a family health history of a disease does not mean that you will develop that disease, but it does mean you are at an increased risk. It also means you can take well-informed extra steps as a proactive measure. Make positive lifestyle choices and undergo screenings to reduce your chances of developing the disease or detect it at an early, manageable stage.

Family of men showing different generations

For a complete family health history, you should write down the names of close relatives from both sides of your family – including your parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews – and any of their known medical conditions. If you are unaware of certain people’s health histories, or if people are deceased, talk to other members of your family who may know. Ideally, you’ll also want to find out each person’s age at diagnosis of a specific disease or chronic health condition. 

A comprehensive health history helps give your doctor a clearer picture of your chances for developing certain conditions at certain ages and stages of life. Together, you can then put a screening and prevention plan into action. 

What Is Included in Family History Medical Records?

Your family history will include any relatives who have or had conditions like:
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Stroke
  • Cancer
  • Dementia
  • Autoimmune conditions
  • Diabetes
  • Osteoporosis
  • Arthritis

While most of these complex conditions are influenced by lifestyle choices and environmental factors on top of genetics, a family history alone puts you at increased risk. 
A family history can also indicate rarer conditions caused by mutations in a single gene, like cystic fibrosis and sickle cell disease.

Why Might a Doctor Ask About Your Family’s Medical History?

Your family medical history is an important tool your doctor can use to help you make positive decisions about your health. 

For example, if someone in your immediate family suffered a stroke, you could have a genetic tendency to have one. This may mean that your doctor recommends a more focused approach on controlling blood pressure, losing weight and keeping a close eye on conditions like atrial fibrillation. If you have a family history of Alzheimer’s disease or another neurodegenerative disorder, your doctor might recommend moderate intake of coffee, because studies seem to indicate that coffee can decrease your risk for developing one of these disorders. 

Your doctor may reference your family medical history when recommending changes in diet or lifestyle habits, prescribing medications, determining which diagnostic and screening tests to order, ordering genetic testing or identifying a condition that matches your symptoms that may not have been considered otherwise. Your doctor can also help you identify other family members who may be at risk of developing a certain condition – like your siblings or children. So, knowing your family history may help others too.

How to Find Out More About Your Family Medical History

To find out about your family medical history, you have to talk to your family. Ask relatives about any health conditions they’ve experienced throughout their lives, and share information about your own diagnoses, which may be helpful to them. If a family member has passed away, talk to their siblings, spouse or children.

If you were adopted or are estranged from your immediate family, getting family medical history information may be more difficult. In these cases, talk to your doctor about the potential benefits of genetic testing. 

Remember, knowing your family medical history is important – but it’s far from the end of your responsibility when it comes to your long-term health. You have to act on that knowledge to make a difference. 

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