Use Your Family History to Protect Your Health

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Even though it’s not a super fun topic to think about, most people have a family health history of at least one chronic disease, such as cancer, heart disease or diabetes. If you have a close family member with one of these diseases, you’re more at risk for it yourself. This is especially true if more than one close relative has (or had) the disease or if they got it at a younger age than usual.

Family health history is a record of the health conditions in your family. You all share genes and you may also share behaviors—such as exercise and diet habits. Many families live in the same area, so they have contact with similar things in the environment. Your family health history includes all of these things, and they all can affect your health.

If you are planning to gather as a family this holiday season, having a discussion about any family history of health issues could be a good idea so that you are as informed as possible in case any health concerns arise in the future. 

Here’s everything you need to know about how to collect your family health history—and why it matters:

  • How to collect family health history. Experts recommend using family gatherings as a time to talk about health history if you aren’t extremely close with your extended family. You can also ask relatives to share historical information like medical history forms and death certificates. The CDC recommends you collect health information about your:
    • Parents
    • Sisters and brothers, including half-siblings
    • Children
    • Grandparents
    • Aunts and uncles
    • Nieces and nephews
  • Information to collect. Questions you should ask your family members should include major medical conditions, age when they were diagnosed, causes of death and age at death (if relevant) and ethnic background. Keep these details updated regularly and always share what you’ve learned with your family members and your doctor. 
  • How to use your family health history. Once you have your family health history, you can put it to work for you. Because even though you can’t change your genes, you can modify your lifestyle behaviors or get earlier or extra testing to help protect you. For example, if heart disease runs in your family—healthy habits like regular exercise, quitting smoking or eating better can make a huge difference when it comes to your risk. 

No matter what answers you get from your family members, make sure to share this information with your health care provider at your next exam.