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. “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. Having a well-documented family health history is one of the most powerful and accessible sources of genetic information currently available.”
While National Family Health History Day falls on Thanksgiving each year, any time you connect with your relatives (even if you’re connecting virtually this year, which we advise due to the COVID-19 pandemic) is an opportunity to have a conversation about the health issues that affect you and your loved ones. Learning more about your shared risks allows you to start taking preventive steps that can lead to more healthy years.
Dr. Manace recommends starting your research at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s family health history website. “They have resources that explain how to create and use family histories — and show you exactly how to outline what you need to know.
“Many medical conditions have a significant lifestyle component. 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.”
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. And don’t forget to discuss your family’s mental health, including conditions such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder.
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 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 that might include consultation with a specialist. For some families, a proactive response to family health history can be lifesaving.
“One of the benefits of Kaiser Permanente’s integrated system 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.