March 2, 2021

History Lessons: What You Can Learn From Your Family Medical History

Consider what you’ve inherited from your parents. On the outside, you might point to hair color, height, and weight. What about on the inside? Have your parents dealt with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or diabetes? What about their parents?

Based on the health history of your first-, second-, and third-degree relatives, you may be able to predict what your own future health has in store. The same goes for any children you may have. These tips for keeping track of your family medical history will explain why recording and preserving certain medical information is so important.

All in the Family

Chronic diseases that occur in at least two of the following sets of relatives are more likely to affect you. First-degree relatives are those with whom you share 50 percent of your genes: your parents, siblings, and children. Second-degree relatives are the siblings of your parents: your aunts and uncles. Third-degree relatives are their children: your first cousins.

The conditions that most often run in families are diabetes, coronary heart disease, and cancer. Having one family member with one of these means that you should consider yourself at increased risk. There are a few pieces of information that you should check out concerning your family members:

  1. At what age did the chronic illness first become an issue for the relative?
  2. For those who have passed away, what was the cause?
  3. At what age did your first-, second- and third-degree relatives pass away?

Genetically linked diseases tend to occur earlier in life. They are also often more severe. If two generations of your family had heart attacks before the age of 40, then you, your siblings, and possibly your children are at significantly increased risk of having similar issues at around the same time in life. If one cousin had cancer later in life, survived, and eventually died of something else, then it is somewhat less likely that the cancer is genetic.

Genetics Aren’t Everything

Environment and lifestyle also play significant roles in your health. Knowing that you have diabetes and hypertension in your family means that you should choose to stay away from certain foods and exercise frequently. Healthy choices such as these can greatly affect if and when diabetes, heart disease, and sometimes cancer develop.

Recording Family Health

When you keep close track of your family’s medical history, it allows health care providers to look into diagnoses that they might not otherwise consider, to screen for genetic conditions, to order the right tests, and to recommend the best way for you to take care of your health. When you meet a new service provider, they will ask you about the health of your first-, second-, and third-degree relatives. My Family Health Portrait, a free tool from the Office of the Surgeon General, is a quick and accurate way to create a family medical history. Bring this history to your medical appointments, along with your other health records, to make each appointment more productive and to make you and your doctor a more effective, communicative team.