Although most know the key to reducing your risk of disease is to eat a healthy diet, get physical exercise, and minimize your alcohol intake, one of the strong influences of getting any given disease is your family health history. Blood relatives share more in common than a similar appearance. While you can clearly see you inherited your mother’s dimples or your father’s blue eyes, there are plenty of things not readily apparent; for example, you have a family history that puts you at an increased risk for diabetes or cancer. Even mental illness has a genetic component.
Although you can’t change your genes, to be forewarned is to be forearmed, and your doctor may be able to diagnose and treat you sooner if you show symptoms of a particular disease. Even if your family health history information is incomplete, it will still be useful with your doctor.
What Information Do I Need to Gather About My Family Health History?
Keep this information in mind when gathering your family’s medical history:
- Major medical conditions: Ask about and document every major medical condition your close relatives have been diagnosed with, such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, asthma, autoimmune disorders, and others. Injuries cannot be inherited.
- Age of onset: The age that your family member was diagnosed with a given disease can help your doctor recognize and diagnose your condition earlier. A key feature that may increase your risk of disease is if your family member was diagnosed at an earlier age than expected. For example, if you have a sibling who was diagnosed with colon cancer in her 30s, it could indicate a genetic issue.
- Environment: There are also environmental factors that affect families, and taking a family history can help you understand what could impact your health. For example, if you live in an area with significant air pollution, this could impact the health of you and your family members.
- Allergies: Learn about your family’s allergies. If your mother is allergic to cats, there’s a good chance you and your sibling could be, as well.
- Ethnicity: Certain conditions are more common in specific races. For example, black people are more likely to have sickle cell anemia than other races, and those of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage have an increased risk of breast cancer. If you are unsure of your ethnicity, ask your parents. If they don’t know exactly, consider taking a DNA test.
- Causes of death: Identify when and how your family members died.
What Should I Do with My Family Health History?
Once you’ve collected information about your family’s health history, particularly your immediate family, aunts and uncles, and grandparents, you’ll need to store it securely either with a hard copy, or preferably on a cloud-based software like Google Drive or Dropbox, so you can access it anywhere. You can electronically document it using the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ web-based tool, Family Health Portrait. This enables you to store, save, and share your family health history.
I Am Adopted. How Can I Learn More About My Family Health History?
Learning more about your birth family’s health history can take a lot of time and energy. If your adoptive parents have any information about your biological parents’ health history, make sure to ask and record the information. You may want to take a DNA or genetic test to see if you are at risk for certain diseases, if all avenues come up short and you cannot or do not wish to seek out your birth parents to learn more.