Knowing your family health history can help you take steps to avoid disease.

November 22nd is National Family Health History Day, and in honor of that special day, it's worth finding out about your own family health history, as well as that of anyone you are providing care for.

Professional caregivers understand the significance of knowing your family health history because many of those same factors which your family has already experienced in their health history could become part of your own health status at some point. Caregivers in Stanwood and elsewhere urge you to take the time to inquire about your family's health history for this reason, so you can have an idea of what you might expect in the coming years.

The significance of family health history

Most people understand that certain traits can be inherited from family members, for instance, blue eyes, wavy blonde hair, tallness, or a predisposition toward being athletic. However, you can also inherit an increased risk for many diseases from your ancestors, and these can be serious diseases such as cancer, diabetes, asthma, and heart disease.

In fact, one of the strongest influences on whether or not you develop such diseases can be your family health history. While you can't do anything about changing the genes you inherit from your family members, if you're aware of your family's health history, there are some things you can do to reduce the risk for developing those diseases.

Features of family history which increase the risk of disease

There are certain specific aspects of your family's health history which contribute most strongly to you developing the same disease, including the following:

  • Early disease - when a family member contracted a disease 10 or 20 years before most people would normally get it, that can increase the risk factor for passing it on
  • Disease combinations - the risk of inheriting disease from a relative is increased when a direct ancestor experienced a combination of diseases, for instance, breast cancer and ovarian cancer
  • Gender-specific diseases - it can be much likelier that you inherit a disease from a relative who experienced an unusual disease that it is generally specific to one or the other genders, i.e. a male who contracts breast cancer
  • Multiple relatives being diseased - when you have more than one ancestor who had the same disease, your chances of inheriting the disease go up significantly.

People who have any of these features in their family health history are more at risk for developing the same disease that a relative once had, and that means you would have the most to gain from having an understanding of your family history and taking some steps to reduce your exposure. Screening tests should be undertaken periodically so that any developing disease can be caught in its earliest stages and treated successfully, and such screening tests can also identify precursor conditions like high blood pressure or high cholesterol, which can lead to serious diseases. If necessary, changes to your lifestyle should also be initiated, so as to discourage the development of any disease that a family member may have had before you. 

How to learn about your family health history

There are a number of ways you can learn more about your family's health history, beginning with asking questions of all your surviving relatives. If these resources are lacking, you can check family medical records and possibly even death certificates to find out what kinds of diseases may have run in your family. You should attempt to collect information about virtually everyone in your family, including your grandparents and parents especially, but also about uncles and aunts, nieces and nephews. The kind of information to look for specifically are their medical conditions, the age at which they were beset with a disease, and the nature of the disease which afflicted them. 

All this gathered information should be written down and shared with your family doctor. If your doctor is aware of the family health history already, he/she can discuss with you the steps you can take to reduce your risk of contracting the same diseases which troubled your family members. If your doctor was not aware of the family medical history, he/she will evaluate the information you have provided, and then recommend changes to your lifestyle, as well as screening tests which can help to identify potential early-stage diseases.

Your doctor may also refer you to a geneticist, who might be able to determine if you have an inherited form of a disease. If either your doctor or the specialist notices a pattern of disease in your family health history, it may indeed be one which is passed on from generation to generation, and which you are more at risk of inheriting as well. It's good to keep in mind, however, that even if you do have an inherited form of some disease, there are still some things you can do to reduce your risk of getting the full-blown version of it.

No evidence of disease in family health history

Even if you don't find any evidence of disease in your family's medical history, it doesn't necessarily mean there is no family predisposition toward disease. Some of your family members may have died young before they had a chance to develop a significant disease, and there may also be family members whom you just couldn't find any information about, who had diseases which could be passed on. In any case, it is still very much in your best interests to learn everything you can about your family's health history, so you can take appropriate steps to safeguard your own health or that of someone you are caring for.