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The Importance of Knowing Your Family Health History

Family health history is a vital component to establishing an effective personal health plan, yet many of us aren’t aware of family histories of disease or illness. Many diseases like cancer and cardiovascular problems carry with them a high genetic risk factor, making it important to know family members’ health histories and how their health information may be analyzed to help determine your own preventative health plan and screening needs.

National Family Health History Day is November 26 and your Capital Women’s Care team would like to share with you how to collect your family health history, important information concerning specific illnesses and diseases having high genetic risk factors and questions to ask family members about their individual health histories so you can share these findings with your doctor to better monitor your own health.

Thanksgiving Day coincides with National Family Health History Day. Whether you know much about your family health history or very little, take the time to talk to your family members about their health histories during holiday family gatherings.

Starting the conversation is important not just for your own health, but also for the health of every member of your family.

Collecting Family Health History

To devise an accurate family health history:

  • Talk to your family – start with close relatives from both sides: parents, both full- and half-siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews. Talk to each about conditions they have or had and age they were initially diagnosed.
  • Ask questions – look for information (including age first diagnosed) concerning your risk of chronic diseases, specifically:
    • heart disease or diabetes
    • health conditions like high blood pressure and/or cholesterol
    • serious diseases like cancer (ask about type and specifics) or stroke
    • family ancestry country or region origins
    • causes of death and age of deceased relatives
  • Record health information and update it whenever you learn new family health history informationMy Family Health Portrait, a free web-based tool that is completely private and created by the U.S. Surgeon General’s office, is helpful to organize information in your family health history, allowing you to share health information easily with your doctor and other family members.
  • Share family health history information with your doctor and other family members. If you are concerned about diseases common within your family, talk with your doctor during your next visit. Even if you don’t know your entire family health history, share what you know. Family health history information, even if incomplete, can help your doctor decide needed screening tests and timeframe for initiating testing.

Other information to share include any genetic testing and/or counseling and subsequent results and health information pertaining to deceased relatives from death certificates or family medical records.

Knowledge is Power to Enhance Your Health

While you can’t change your genetics, you can enact changes to improve your overall health: eliminate smoking, emphasize exercise and be more active and prioritize healthy eating all add up to increased health benefits. In many cases, healthy living habits can reduce your risk for diseases commonly diagnosed within your family.

Knowing your family health history provides important knowledge you can act on to improve your own health and that of your family.

If you have a family health history of disease, you may have the most to gain from lifestyle changes and screening tests.

Screening tests, like blood sugar testingmammograms and colorectal cancer screening, help find early signs of disease, which often means better health and quality of life in the long run.

  • Has your mother or sister had breast cancer? Talk with your doctor about whether having a mammogram earlier is right for you.
  • Does your mom, dad, sister, or brother have diabetes? Ask your doctor how early you should be screened for diabetes.
  • Did your mom, dad, brother, or sister get colorectal (colon) cancer before age 50? Talk with your doctor about whether you should start getting colonoscopies earlier or have them done more often.

Several chronic health conditions within your family health history require you to enact on your own health monitoring and screening due to their inherent genetic risk factors. Discuss your family health history with your doctor if one or more of your relatives are diagnosed with:

  • breast cancer
  • ovarian cancer
  • colorectal (colon) cancer
  • heart disease
  • diabetes
  • hereditary hemochromatosis (potentially toxic high levels of iron)
  • osteoporosis

Specific health guidelines can help you and your doctor determine and devise appropriate screening and monitoring schedules should any member of your family be diagnosed with one or more of the aforementioned chronic health conditions.

Family Health Knowledge Helps Future Generations

Knowing your family’s health history can also be valuable if you are planning to start or expand your family.

It’s important to know if any of the following conditions occur within your family health history:

If a genetic disease runs in your family, you might be a carrier for that disease. Likewise, you might be a carrier for genetic diseases more common within your racial or ethnic group, like sickle cell disease in Blacks and Tay-Sachs disease in people of Ashkenazi and Eastern European Jewish descent.

Your doctor might ask if you want to have screening, called carrier screening, to check if you are a carrier for diseases more common in your racial or ethnic group. Talk to your doctor if you want to know about carrier screening for genetic diseases occurring within your family.

The American College of Medical Genetics (ACMG) and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) state all women should be offered carrier screening for cystic fibrosis and spinal muscular atrophy and should be checked for hemoglobinopathies like sickle cell disease and thalassemia.

If results show you are a carrier for a disease, the other potential parent would also need to have carrier screening to know if you could have a baby with the disease.

Learning more about your family health history before you become pregnant can give you time to address any concerns. Remember to review family health history of both potential parents and that of your previous children and discuss your concerns with your doctor. For example, if you have had a previous pregnancy or child affected by spina bifida or anencephaly, your doctor might recommend you take a higher than normal dose of the B vitamin, folic acid, before and during pregnancy.

Older children also benefit from knowing family health history, especially histories that include heart disease, type 2 diabetes and genetic diseases.

Family health history can help your child’s doctor make a diagnosis if your child shows signs of a disease. It can also reveal whether your child has an increased risk for a disease. If so, the doctor might suggest screening tests. Many genetic diseases first become obvious in childhood and knowing about a history of a genetic condition can help find and treat the condition early.

Chronic diseases such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes can affect children; children with a strong family history of these diseases can show signs of either during childhood years.

It’s important to note that having a family history of a disease does not mean your child will get that disease.

Children with a family history of chronic diseases can benefit from developing good lifestyle habits, like exercising and eating healthy, immediately. These habits can also benefit the entire family and might help to prevent or delay onset of chronic diseases.

Finding Health Histories For Adopted Family

If you have family members who are adopted or a relative who conceived using sperm and/or egg donation, there are several outlets to locate family health history of biological parents and relatives.

Those planning on adopting a baby or child should:

Any amount of family health information you may obtain is helpful to your baby or child’s health plan and monitoring.

If you or a relative used a sperm and/or egg donor to get pregnant:

  • Save all family health history information about the donor as available.

If you or a relative are adopted:

  • If available, collect medical information on birth relatives. Laws concerning medical information collection vary by state.
    • Some adoption agencies collect medical information on birth relatives.
    • The Child Welfare Information Gateway has information on adoption, which could be helpful if you decide to search for your birth parents.
    • Contact your state’s health and social service agency for information about how to access medical or legal records.

Your local Capital Women’s Care team is here to answer any questions or concerns you may have regarding your family health history and how that knowledge can be interpreted to devise screening and monitoring schedules within your personal health plan to optimize you and your family’s health and quality of life.