What is Genetics? : My Family Health History

My Family Health History

Learning about your family health history is the BEST way to learn more about your risk for disease!

By starting the conversation with the members of your family, you can help yourself and other family members to become more aware of and possibly prevent health conditions. How do you get this conversation started? This page will give you tips on how to get the information and what you can do with the information once you have it!

What is a family health history?

Your family health history is information that you collect from yourself and your family members about their health. This history can be taken in many forms. A healthcare professional may take a family health history that is in the shape of a diagram. This is often called a family “pedigree”. But a family health history does not have to be a complicated diagram. It can be a list of your family members and the health conditions they have had along with other important information such as their relation to you, their age, and ethnicity. The benefit of a family health history that you take a home (rather than filling out in your doctor’s office) is that you can keep the history, update it, and share it with others (doctors or other family members) as needed.

Why is a family health history important?

Your family health history is an important tool that can be used to raise your and your family’s awareness of health conditions in your family. It can also open up doors of communication about health conditions that may not have been previously talked about. Having this knowledge can allow you and your family to make lifestyle changes based on your risk. For example, if your family health history shows that several members of your family have developed diabetes in their 40s and 50s, your family may be motivated to make changes to their diet or increase the amount of exercise they do. Even though people in the family are at higher risk for diabetes due to the family history, they may be able to prevent or delay getting the disease if they make these changes. The family health history is also an important tool for your doctor to use. The doctor can use your family health history to become familiar with the conditions that may run in your family. Also, your doctor may suggest some lifestyle changes, medications or other preventive options. Sometimes, after reviewing a family’s health history a doctor may suggest that a family see a genetic counselor to talk about the family history and the risks for health conditions in the family. A genetic counselor can offer the family information about the risk of disease in the family, genetic testing, support and resources.

What questions should I ask when doing my family health history?

Once you start asking your family questions, you may get a lot of information! It is important to know what information is most important to record in the family health history. First, it is important to record who is giving you information and how they are related to you. The distance that someone is from you in the family makes a difference. For example, if you have a father who has heart disease, your risk for developing heart disease may be higher than if the only person with heart disease is much further from you in the family (like your great-grandmother). Since you are more closely related to your father than your great-grandmother you share more genes with him. You may share some of the same genes with your father that put him at risk for heart disease.
Next, it is important to ask what serious health conditions members of the family have had, especially those that have occurred in more than one family member. It is important to know whether just one or all four of your father’s sisters developed breast cancer. This is because the more people in the family there are with the SAME disease, the higher chance that there are genes involved in causing the disease. Some diseases or health conditions that are important to write down are:

  • Alzheimer disease or dementia
  • Learning disabilities or autism
  • Blindness or deafness
  • Cancers
  • Babies born with birth defects or needed surgery at a young age
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure or strokes
  • Kidney diseases
  • Infertility, multiple miscarriages
  • Muscle diseases
  • Neurological diseases like Parkinson disease or multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • Early or sudden deaths

The age that someone developed a disease is also very important to note in the family history. This is because diseases that have a strong genetic component tend to happen earlier in life. For example, imagine two families: The Jones family has several uncles who developed prostate cancer in their 70s and 80s. The Rivera family has several uncles who got prostate cancer in their 40s and 50s. Prostate cancer in the Rivera family is more likely to have a strong genetic component because the cancer occurred at an earlier age. The Jones may also have genes that are involved, but the effect of those genes may not be as great as it is in the Rivera family.

Other information that is important to record:

  • The date that you took the family history
  • The ethnicity of the family
  • Is your family member adopted or not related to you by blood?

What do I do after I have my family health history?

All of these suggestions can get tricky. That is why it is important to record the information you can get from your family and share it with your doctor. Your doctor can then review the information or choose to refer you to see a healthcare provider that specializes in genetics, like a genetic counselor.

Where can I learn more about my family health history?