Bianca’s father died in his 50s after suffering a massive heart attack. Her mother is a two-time breast cancer survivor. Bianca’s in her late 30s and very healthy, so she was surprised when her primary care physician flagged her parents’ health history during a recent checkup and suggested some tweaks to her own lifestyle.
You already know that healthy lifestyle changes such as increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables, exercising regularly, drinking more water, and getting a good night’s sleep can reduce your risk of disease.
But did you know there’s another very easy way to stay healthy that can also possibly save your life? Knowing your family health history.
Families share genes, environment, and lifestyle habits. These shared factors can increase your overall risks of developing health conditions such as asthma, heart disease, cancer, or diabetes. You can’t change your genes, but knowing what conditions “run in the family” can help your health care provider make proactive decisions and identify ways to reduce your risk so you can live a healthier life.
Recommendations may include:
- Adopting a healthier lifestyle (quitting smoking, increasing activity, improving diet, etc.)
- Tests that detect disease risk factors (high cholesterol, high blood pressure, genetic tests, etc.)
- Screenings (mammograms, colonoscopies, etc.) that can catch disease early, when it’s more treatable.
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Collecting Your Family Health History
You may already know some of your family’s health history, but there may be some plot holes. That’s why family gatherings are a great place to begin talking and asking questions about your family’s health so you can fill in the blanks. The most important relatives to find out health history information from are your parents, brothers, sisters, and your children. You may want also to talk to grandparents, uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews, and half-brothers and half-sisters.
If possible, find death certificates and family medical records. You can use the Surgeon General’s web-based tool called “My Family Health Portrait” or Does It Run In The Family? from Genetic Alliance to help keep track of the information and keep it up to date.
Here’s what to collect:
- Major medical conditions, chronic diseases
- Causes of death
- Age of disease onset and age at death
- Ancestry/ethnic background
Determining Your Risk / Are You At Risk?
After collecting your family health history, it’s important to share it with your doctor, even if it’s incomplete. They can assess any disease patterns and determine your disease risk. If they do see a family pattern, they may refer you to a specialist such as a genetic counselor to help verify if you have an inherited form of disease and if other family members may be at risk.
Here are a few things to look for in your family health history that may increase your chances of disease:
- Multiple close relatives with the same disease
- Early onset (10-20 years sooner than most people develop a disease)
- Disease that doesn’t usually affect a certain gender (e.g. breast cancer in a male)
- Certain combinations of disease in the same family (e.g. heart disease/diabetes or breast/ovarian cancer, etc.)
Most people have a history of at least one chronic disease in their family, but your family may have no history, or be unaware of any disease in family members. Perhaps some family members died young before they had a chance to develop, or you are the first to be diagnosed with a medical condition. Maybe a sister or brother has had a genetic test done. Sharing any health history information you have among family members benefits everyone.
Having a family history of disease does not automatically mean you’ll get it, but knowledge is power. Make learning your family health history part of your overall wellness plan today.
After Bianca shared her family history with the doctor, her physician ordered a cholesterol test and some bloodwork to determine whether Bianca might be a carrier of a gene associated with higher risk of breast cancer.
If you still have questions about staying healthy, Just Ask Dari.
Looking for advice specific to you and your loved one? You could benefit from connecting one-on-one with a Dari Dedicated Care Guide.