Most people understand the health benefits of a good diet and exercise. Likewise, lifestyle, stress level, alcohol, and tobacco use, as well as exposure to environmental toxins can negatively impact health. What is often overlooked, however, is the importance of knowing your family’s health history. This history can provide insight into medical conditions that you may be more likely to develop, and knowing this may allow you to take important steps to reduce those risks.
November is Family History Month. This recognition began in 2004 to encourage people to learn more about their family medical histories in order to identify health conditions they may be at an increased risk of developing. Families share many things, like their origins, their neighborhoods, their lifestyle and diet, and their traditions, but they also share genes. Many common diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol levels, depression, and some cancers can have genetic components. This is especially true when individuals in the same family develop these conditions at an earlier age than average, or when there are multiple family members with the same illness.
Healthcare providers often ask questions about family history. This is because they know this history is valuable when evaluating a patient and making recommendations for screening or treatment. For example, in light of a family history of high cholesterol levels, a provider may recommend cholesterol screening along with specific medications, dietary, or lifestyle changes. In other families, testing for inherited forms of high cholesterol may be appropriate. Likewise, in a family with multiple members with early-onset colon cancer, testing for inherited forms of colon cancer may be considered. Knowing you have a gene that increases the chance for a hereditary form of colon cancer could allow for early screening and lifesaving interventions.
In honor of Family History Month, take some time to learn more about your own health. This Thanksgiving, when you gather with family, open a conversation with your loved ones and explore your family’s medical history. Try to obtain information from at least three generations of biological relatives if possible. Include diseases they may have developed, the age at which they were diagnosed, as well as the age and cause of death for deceased relatives. Pay attention to conditions such as cancer or heart attack that had an early age of onset (under 50 yrs).
Knowing your ancestry is also important since some inherited conditions are more common among individuals of certain ethnic backgrounds. There may be online tools, to help you create a family medical history or you can simply record the information on a piece of paper. Share the information you obtain (while being respectful of others’ privacy) with your healthcare provider who may wish to use it to make recommendations for screening, lifestyle changes or even genetic testing.
Knowledge is power and finding out what is in your family’s medical history can empower you to take action and stay healthy.