Why it’s important to know your family history.
Most of us are asked on health forms or in the doctor’s office about their family history, but why is it important to know?
Most of us know that we can reduce our risk of disease by eating a healthy diet, getting enough exercise, and not smoking. But, did you know that your family history might be one of the strongest influences on your risk of developing heart disease, stroke, diabetes, or cancer? Even though you cannot change your genetic makeup, knowing your family history can help you reduce your risk of developing health problems.
Family members share their genes, as well as their environment, lifestyles, and habits. Everyone can recognize traits such as curly hair, dimples, leanness, or athletic ability that run in their families. Risks for diseases such as asthma, diabetes, cancer, and heart disease also run in families. Everyone’s family history of disease is different.
The key features of a family history that may increase risk are:
- 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)
If your family has one or more of these features, your family history may hold important clues about your risk for disease. People with a family history of disease may have the most to gain from lifestyle changes and screening tests. You cannot change your genes, but you can change unhealthy behaviors such as smoking, inactivity, and poor eating habits. In many cases, adopting a healthier lifestyle can reduce your risk for diseases that run in your family. Screening tests (such as mammograms and colorectal cancer screening) can detect diseases like cancer at an early stage, when they are most treatable. Screening tests can also detect disease risk factors like high cholesterol and high blood pressure, which can be treated to reduce the chances of getting a disease.
If you don’t know your family history, it’s a good time to chat with your doctor about other options to find out about your family health or genetic traits.