Why Your Family Medical History Is an Important Component of Your Care

From heart disease to breast cancer, many health conditions are believed to have a genetic component. Your family medical history can help identify patterns of disease within your family and provide your doctor with vital information to develop a comprehensive care plan that anticipates your unique needs.

What Is Your Family Medical History?

When your doctor asks for your family history, he or she is talking about the health history of your direct relatives, such as your parents and grandparents. You can gather your family health history by creating a simple list that includes your blood relatives on both sides of your family: grandparents, parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and your own children. Then note any health conditions or diseases each person was known to have. If they've passed away, list their cause of death, too. Take this information to your doctor to have it recorded on your own medical record.

Why Is Your Family Medical History Important?

As you write down your family health history, you may notice some interesting trends. Perhaps, for example, multiple members of your family developed colon cancer at an early age. These types of patterns can indicate that you're at a higher risk of developing a particular disease. With the insights gleaned from your family health history, you can work with your doctor to create screening protocols that are tailored to your individual health risks. For instance, your doctor may suggest you begin colon cancer screening earlier than the recommended age of 50. Or your family medical history may influence your desire to obtain pre-pregnancy genetic screening for diseases like sickle cell anemia or Tay-Sachs disease, which result from a genetic defect carried by the parents.

Tips for Gathering Your Family Health History

One great way to find out about your family's health is to talk about it. Ask relatives about any health conditions they've experienced throughout their lives. If a family member has recently passed away, talk to their personal representative to request a copy of the individual's medical record. You should also do your part by sharing your own medical history with other family members.

People who were adopted or estranged from their families may not be able to obtain their family health history. In this case, you might want to consider talking with your doctor about the potential benefits of genomic testing (also called genetic testing). These tests look at multiple genes to identify whether you carry specific genetic abnormalities that can increase your risk of developing a disease like cancer. If you decide to undergo genomic testing, you should work closely with your doctor or a geneticist. Sometimes these tests present ambiguous results, but a knowledgeable physician or geneticist can help you interpret the test results accurately and construct a basic family history based on its findings.

Your family history provides vital insight for achieving excellent health. When you know your health risks based on the history of disease within your family, you can plan ahead for screening tests or make lifestyle changes to reduce your risk of developing the conditions that run in your family.

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