Family history: why knowing family health history is important
Finding out your family history of health issues
As you set out to find out about your family health history:
• Be sensitive. Not everyone may want to talk about their health. Choose an appropriate time to speak with your blood-related family members. And assure them that the information is for you, your doctor and family members only.
• Explain why you’re trying to find out about your family’s health. Talk about how sharing health information could influence how you and your family manage their health.
• Try to include as many people as possible. From your parents and grandparents to siblings, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, cousins and your own children, talking to family members may encourage them to learn more about their own health.
• For specific health conditions, find out the age that your family member first noticed symptoms and when they received a diagnosis. If a condition started earlier than usual, your family members may have a genetic susceptibility to that condition.
• If you can’t contact family members, let your doctor know. Don’t worry if you don’t have the full story. Just as your family is continually changing, so is your family history.
If you do find out anything about your family history that concerns you, see your doctor.
How can your family health history be used?
By knowing the health history of your blood relatives, specialists may be able to identify some risk factors that could affect your current or future health.
For example, some of the risk factors for heart disease are high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Both these risk factors are influenced by genetic and environmental factors such as lifestyle, age and gender. If tests show that you have these risk factors, you’ll be asked about your personal lifestyle habits – such as diet, exercise, smoking and stress. While a healthy lifestyle won’t erase a genetic risk, making simple changes to your habits is likely to help reduce your risk.
You may also be asked to have more tests, including special screening tests, diagnostic tests or more frequent check-ups. This could help find and manage health problems early and delay the onset of chronic conditions, increasing your chances of good health.
Even if your family history suggests links with a disease or condition, you won’t necessarily develop it. Likewise, it’s possible to develop a disease or condition even without a family history of it. So focus on living a healthy life, and get the screening tests you need when recommended.