Talking with your family about medical conditions you may share can help you and your doctor make informed decisions about protecting your health.
You’re probably aware that if certain diseases run in your family, you may have a higher risk of inheriting them. But you may not know that one of the most effective ways to help prevent that from happening lies well within your power.
It’s called a family health history, and it’s simply a written or visual record of the medical conditions your relatives have had.
“Documenting your family health history is an excellent way to optimize your health,” explained Leslie Manace, MD, a clinical geneticist at Kaiser Permanente Oakland Medical Center. “It provides you with a powerful and accessible source of genetic information.”
“We're seeing a real uptick in people's interest in what their genetic code means for their health and the health of their family members,” she added.
While National Family Health History Day falls on Thanksgiving each year, any time you connect with your relatives is an opportunity to have a conversation about the health issues that affect you and your loved ones. Doing so allows you to start taking preventive steps that could lead to more healthy years.
You can start your research at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s family health history site. They explain how to outline what you need to create and use family histories,. You can also ask your doctor for resources and guidance to help you gather information.
When creating your family health history, include conditions such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, along with birth defects, intellectual disabilities, and lifestyle habits such as smoking and alcohol or drug use.
“Many medical conditions have a significant lifestyle component,” Dr. Manace explained. “While family members have similar genetics, they also often share strong environmental factors too, such as diet and exercise. And all these details can inform how their health problems present.”
And don’t forget to discuss your family’s mental health, including conditions such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder.
When you learn about a diagnosis for a blood relative, ask for specific details, including how old they were when diagnosed. It’s ok to estimate their age if they can’t recall the exact year.
Once you gather the information, act on it.
Share your family health history with your loved ones and, most importantly, with your primary care provider. By having a better understanding of your family health history, your doctor will be better equipped to recommend when to start preventive screenings and can recommend appropriate lifestyle changes.
If your family health history suggests the possibility of an inherited disorder, your doctor may ask you to gather more information about your relatives or refer you for next steps. This might include a consultation with a specialist for you or another family member affected by a particular medical condition.
If any close blood relatives have had genetic testing and are willing to share their health information, obtaining a copy of this genetic testing report may be helpful to clarify your best steps for getting the care you need.
For some families, a proactive response to family health history can be lifesaving.
“One of the benefits of Kaiser Permanente’s integrated model is that once the information is in your electronic health record, it's easily accessible to every practitioner you may see and can inform your personalized care plan,” said Dr. Manace.