Why Your Family History Is Important to Your Health
By Dr. Curtis Thill •
You’ve likely already experienced it – when you visit a physician or medical provider for the first time, the medical staff hands you a few sheets to complete before beginning your visit. Typically you’ll complete a family and personal history of past (or current) medical issues. Why is that?
You might be surprised how important this information is. Especially for a new patient it helps a provider look for important signs or symptoms. Knowing your family (especially your parents and grandparents) medical history can help you stay healthy and anticipate potential issues later in life.
You may not know this (or fully appreciate it), but your family history can help gauge the potential risk of you later developing diabetes, high blood pressure (hypertension), heart disease, cancer, stroke or other medical issues.
Family history is important to good health because family members do more than share genes. They also share and influence lifestyles and habits. Parental influence can affect other conditions and behaviors like smoking, alcohol consumption, or being overweight.
The genes that are passed on through your parents and grandparents obviously can’t be changed. But knowing your history can help you reinforce healthy lifestyle behaviors or be on the lookout for the potential onset of more serious conditions.
So its important to know your history and relate it to your medical providers (and by the way, your medical provider must adhere to HIPAA privacy standards, so your information is submitted in a secure environment).
Oftentimes when we’re completing the provider request it’s easy to pass over important information or not fully document family medical history. Sometimes we may simply not know.
If you don’t know much about your family medical history, it’s good to simply ask, especially your parents. You can also appropriately and tactfully raise the issue at family gatherings. Summer is a time many extended families gather for reunions, which is a great time to learn more about family medical histories. If your parents are deceased, it would be important to know the cause of death (usually documented on a death certificate).
While that may sound a little morbid, knowing the information could be a lifesaver. We often like knowing what physical or family traits are passed down from family members, including hair or eye color, height, athletic ability, and more.
But it’s also important to realize that risk of heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and other conditions often run in families. For example, iIf you find that a number of your family members have had heart disease, then that potentially means that you may have a higher risk of developing heart or cardiovascular disease. The good news? If you’re aware of that potential some 10 to 20 years before the age it appeared in your parents or family members, you can take steps now to eat healthy and maintain an active lifestyle to minimize risk.
Understanding this helps you know what a physician or provider might do with your family history. Your provider may suggest that you consider screening tests to further document any potential risk (or hidden conditions). This includes the potential of developing breast or prostate cancer, as well as other types of cancer that can arise from smoking (even after you’ve quit smoking). Testing cholesterol levels or watching for symptoms of high blood pressure can help reduce risks of later cardiovascular or other diseases.
So when you’re asked to provide a family history, it’s definitely not done to annoy you or invade your privacy. Check out your family history and take steps to keep yourself healthy!
Where to start
You can use the Surgeon General’s web-based tool called “My Family Health Portrait” to keep track of the information you collect.
Practicing medicine in the Crawford County region for more than 30 years, Dr. Curtis Thill is a board-certified family physician.