Your family health history may include health risks

April 21, 2016 Providence Health Team

By Jonathan Vinson, M.D., primary care physician, Providence Medical Group

When you look in the mirror, do you see your dad’s nose or your grandmother’s eyes? Characteristics like curly hair or long legs get passed down from generation to generation, but they’re not the only traits you can inherit. Families share genes, environments and behaviors, too. These individual factors have the potential to affect your health. You may have inherited your mom’s smile, but you also might have inherited her health risks.

Gather family health history

Some diseases and chronic conditions tend to run in families, so it’s a good idea to gather information about your family health history. That information can help you can make the right decisions about your own health.

You might know about the big health events in your family, such as what your grandparents died from, or if your parents have passed, what caused their deaths. But do you know what other health issues they had while they were alive?

If a relative died at a young age, ask your family about the cause of death. Did a close female relative have ovarian cancer? Did a relative have an aneurysm? If you have an immediate family member who had prostate, breast or colon cancer, you may have a higher risk of developing that disease. Also find out if family members have conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes.

Make it a point to seek out details. Any time your family gets together for a dinner, a holiday celebration or even a FaceTime chat, ask about health issues that run in the family. No one should feel forced to reveal personal health information, but it might help to explain that knowing family health history could be very important to every family member’s future health care choices.

Share what you learn

Share what you know with other family members to help everyone understand their potential health issues. Also share your family health history with your primary care provider, so you can review your risk factors together. Your provider will help you find the right resources for preventive care and will help you get the proper screening tests at the right time. Knowing about your risk factors can give you a better chance of preventing a disease or catching it in its earliest, most treatable stages.

Resources to help

If you’d like help getting started on gathering your family health history, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website and use the My Family Health Portrait Tool. This is a private, free, Internet-based tool that allows you to collect and record your family’s health milestones and explore your genetic background. Or, use your patient access to your electronic medical records to make notes about your family health history for your provider to review.

It may feel intrusive to ask your loved ones questions about their health. But once they know the information will be used to help all your family members be aware of possible health risks, the conversation should be easier. And it’s not enough just to talk about your health legacy – write it down. When appropriate, share it with your children so they have the information they need to make informed decisions about their own inherited health risks.

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