Using Family History To Promote Health

By now we’re all familiar with the typical New Year’s resolutions: Resolve to get healthy by achieving a healthy weight, stopping smoking, eating a balanced diet and exercising regularly. But there are steps beyond those familiar health tips that can further ensure good health.

Family history is an important influence on your risk of developing heart disease, stroke, diabetes or cancer. And while you can’t change your genetic makeup, knowing your family history can help you reduce your risk of developing health problems.

According to a 2004 survey, 96% of Americans believe that knowing their family history is important to their health. Yet, the same survey found that only one-third of Americans have ever tried to gather and write down their family’s health history.

A family medical history or medical family tree is a powerful health screening tool. Also known as a ‘pedigree,’ a family medical history is a record of illnesses and medical conditions among family members. A medical family tree resembles the family trees used by genealogists, visually depicting the relationships between each member of your family along with their health information. According to Kathryn Murray, a certified genetic counselor and director of genetics services at the Center for Maternal and Fetal Medicine, “The most useful family medical history includes details on first, second and third degree relatives. Organizing that information into a detailed family tree helps you and your physician visualize how traits may be clustered within families and move through generations.”

According to Murray, the following are “red flags’ in family history that might suggest a genetic condition or inherited susceptibility to a common disease:

  • Diseases that occur at an earlier age than expected (10 to 20 years before most people get the disease)
  • Disease in more than one close relative
  • Disease that does not usually affect a certain gender (for example, breast cancer in a male)
  • Certain combinations of diseases within a family (for example, breast and ovarian cancer, or heart disease and diabetes)
  • A sudden death in someone who seemed healthy
  • Three or more pregnancy losses.

Also, within individuals, Murray says it’s important to look for learning disabilities; behavioral problems; unexplained seizures; unexplained infertility; anatomical malformations; and congenital deafness, blindness or cataracts.

Compiling a family history and sharing it with your physician allows your doctor to calculate your risk of a certain disease and your risk of passing certain conditions to your children. In addition, the family history helps your doctor determine whether you may benefit from preventive measures or medical tests.

Here are resources that may help you create a family medical history: