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What you need to know about your family's health history

It's important to know what questions to ask family members about health and how it impacts you.

February 23, 2023

Most people have a family health history of at least one chronic disease. It's important to know what questions to ask family members about health and how it impacts you.

Think back to all the times you’ve filled out a family medical history questionnaire in a physician’s waiting room before an appointment. You might have rushed to complete the form and put little thought into the importance or accuracy of the information you provided.

Answering questions about your immediate family’s health history can be a challenge, let alone answering questions about your grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Talking about the health issues of your loved ones can also be uncomfortable, but for the sake of your own health, it’s worth it. Because when it comes to your family’s medical history, there’s no such thing as providing your physician with too much information.

Why is it important to know your family health history?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) article, "Family Health History: The Basics", most people have a family health history of at least one chronic disease such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes. This means if you have a family health history of heart disease, you are more likely to develop the condition yourself. Different types of heart disease and related conditions such as high blood pressure and high blood cholesterol, can also run in families. So knowing your family’s history of diseases and related conditions is one of the first steps you can take to prevent those health issues in the future.

With the help of your physician, you can also come up with prevention techniques for certain conditions. This may include lifestyle changes through diet, exercise and stress management. This may also involve medication, regular health screenings or genetic testing.

If your healthcare provider has your family’s health history, together you can discuss the types of screenings you need and how often you should be screened. Knowing your family’s health information can also help physicians diagnose conditions early when they are often in their most treatable stages.

Direct-to-consumer genetic tests can be informative, but they should not be thought of as a replacement for asking your family about their medical history. These tests, although popular, can often lead to misleading, misinterpreted or completely incorrect results. Also, unexpected information about your genetics or family can be upsetting. So, if you do decide to proceed with one of these tests, any results should be interpreted by your physician.

It’s also important to note that heredity is just one risk factor in the development of some diseases. In addition to genetics, families often share environments, lifestyles and habits, which can also increase or decrease the risk of developing certain health issues or diseases. For example, family members may eat the same unhealthy foods and not get enough exercise, which may increase their risk of developing heart disease, diabetes and other conditions.

How to find out your family’s medical history

Did you know that Thanksgiving is National Family Health History Day? That’s because family gatherings are a good time to ask questions about your family’s medical history. These talks don’t have to be awkward. Having a genuine interest in the health of your loved ones can help you discover ways to better inform your own medical decisions.

Since it might not be the most lighthearted discussion to have around the dinner table, you may prefer to speak to family members one-on-one. Make loved ones feel at ease by showing a genuine concern for their health and an interest in how they manage any conditions. Some relatives might be happy to discuss health topics since it provides them a chance to share their personal stories, struggles and triumphs.

Other family members may be reluctant to discuss their medical issues. They may worry about alarming their relatives or prefer to keep their health concerns private. If you feel comfortable, you can share your own experiences to open up a dialogue. Try to ask them questions delicately and without prying; let them know that their answers may help other family members avoid becoming ill.

Another thoughtful way to broach a difficult subject is to share a recent news story, statistic or an interesting fact you read about a health condition. For example, if someone you know had a heart attack recently, you could ask your family members if they’d heard about it and if anyone in the family had ever had a heart condition. You could also bring up a little-known fact, by saying something like, “I heard women can experience different heart attack symptoms from men. Has anyone in our family had a heart attack? Did they mention having any unusual symptoms?”

Eight health history questions to ask your family

Once you start compiling your family’s health history, try to obtain information for three generations of relatives along with their ethnic backgrounds. Ask a wide range of questions, focusing on conditions where heredity could be a risk factor.

Here are eight health history questions to get you started:

  1. Has anyone in our family passed away at a young age from a disease?
  2. Has a family member been diagnosed with cancer? Were they diagnosed before age 50?
  3. Does heart disease run in our family? Has anyone had a stroke or heart attack, and at what age?
  4. Have any family members developed diabetes, and how old were they when diagnosed?
  5. Do you have high blood pressure or high cholesterol?
  6. Is there a history of autoimmune disorders within our family?
  7. Does anyone in our family have dementia or Alzheimer’s disease?
  8. Have any of our relatives received mental health treatment?

If the answer to any of the above is yes, don’t hesitate to follow up with further questions such as:

  • How old was the family member at the time of diagnosis?
  • Did they have noticeable signs and symptoms?
  • Did the condition affect multiple generations?
  • If there is a history of cancer in your family, ask:
    • What type of cancer did they have?
    • Have any relatives had multiple cancer diagnoses?
    • Have multiple family members had the same type of cancer?

These questions are far from an exhaustive family health history checklist, but you can use them to begin to collect vital information to share with your physician.

Remember, the genetic links between some diseases and conditions are still being researched. Even if you are at risk of inheriting a condition, that does not mean you’ll be diagnosed with it. If you are worried about a specific health issue, discuss it with your physician. You might also want to ask other relatives if they share your concern, so you can support one another.

Where to store your medical family tree

After gathering your family’s medical history, make sure it’s accessible, so you can reference it during future health appointments.

There are many ways of storing your family’s health history, including:

  • Write your family’s health history on a piece of paper and store it in your wallet or in a folder you take to appointments.
  • Type all of your family’s health information in a document and email it to yourself. Note: Documents can be secured with a password.
  • Keep your family’s medical history in a notes app on your phone. Note: This option poses more of a security risk than using a password-protected document.
  • Store your family’s health history digitally. The U.S. Surgeon General’s web-based tool, My Family Health Portrait, allows you to digitally store your family’s health information.

Regardless of what method you choose, having a complete family history ready for your physician will save you time and help both of you make informed decisions about your care. Be sure to share this information within your family as well, so you can help all of your loved ones live healthier lives.

MountainStar Healthcare offers free health risk assessments that can help you better understand your risk factors for certain health conditions. For example, you can take a MountainStar Healthcare Heart Health Assessment to help you better understand any potential risk factors you may have for developing heart disease and start a conversation with your doctor about what steps you can take to reduce your heart disease risk and stay healthy.

February 23, 2023