When they say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, it doesn’t just mean you inherited your father’s eyes and your mother’s sparkling personality. Genes are the basic physical and functional units of heredity that link us to our biological family members. But there’s more to our genetics than the physical and personality traits we take from our parents at birth. Our genes also determine familial patterns for health disorders, as well as our risk for specific medical conditions. So, when people say it runs in the family, they might be referring to illness and disease as well.
It sounds scary to hear that certain medical conditions can be linked to your DNA, mainly because we can’t change our genes. The good news is that getting to know your family health history can help alert you and your doctor to potential problems with your health. This allows you to take preventative measures that can detect and treat those health problems early on.
As the healthcare industry continues to identify advances in medicine, having a detailed family health history gives your medical team new ways to take action, prevent, and even treat, specific genetic diseases through personalized medicine. Let’s take a closer look at the importance of your family health history. We’ll give you tips on how to gather detailed information about the health of your closest family members to lower your risk of certain medical conditions that might be caused by your genetics.
How Can Your Family’s Health History Affect Your Health?
Studies show that families often carry patterns of disorders that can be used by healthcare providers to determine an individual’s risk of obtaining certain health conditions. Several medical conditions are influenced by our genes, environment, and lifestyle. When you receive a detailed history of the medical background of your closest family members, doctors can uncover clues as to whether or not specific medical conditions run in the family. That’s why gathering your family health history is crucial to prevent, detect, and treat various health conditions linked to genetics.
Genetic factors, environmental conditions, and lifestyle choices have been commonly linked to the following health conditions:
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Rare conditions such as Cystic Fibrosis and Sickle Cell Disease
Here are some signs that a family member’s health condition may be genetic:
- They are younger than average at the time of onset
- Two or more relatives develop the condition around the same age
- The same condition is diagnosed across multiple generations
- Diagnosed relatives experience certain combinations of diseases, like heart disease and diabetes or breast and ovarian cancer
In some cases, our genes increase our risk of inheriting specific conditions. But that doesn’t mean you’ll be diagnosed with cancer at some point in your life just because your mother or father did. Keeping track of your family health history only increases your healthcare provider’s ability to create a lifelong wellness plan that allows you to live a long, healthy life, despite your genetics. Knowing the genetic health factors that have affected your family will help you:
- Take steps to reduce your risk of being diagnosed with certain medical conditions
- Stay on top of regular health checkups
- Undergo more frequent tests and scans to diagnose aggressive conditions at earlier stages
- Check regularly for common family health conditions
- Avoid lifestyle factors that further increase your risk
- Undergo genetic testing to help with diagnosis and treatment
Knowing your family history can help doctors regularly check for diseases that run in your family, especially if rare circumstances surround them. For example, male patients might be sent for breast cancer scanning if a male family member was diagnosed with the condition. In another example, individuals under the age of 60 might go for specific tests for a colorectal disease if a family member had the condition where others wouldn’t be tested until over the age of 60.
Important People and Questions to Ask to Build Your Family Health History
One of the best ways to get a full understanding of your family health history is to create a health portrait. You can download free web-based tools that help you organize the information you gather and record it for when you need it in the future. Try the My Family Health Portrait by the CDC or build your own that can be printed and shared with your healthcare provider. Be sure to update your portrait regularly and share it with other family members who would benefit from the same family health history.
Before you begin to gather information, it’s essential to know who matters when it comes to your health history. Start by filling out information about:
- Your parents
- Your brothers and sisters
- Your children
These are considered your primary genetic connections. Once you’ve gathered as much information as possible from this core group of family members, you can move onto secondary family members. These include:
- Aunts and uncles
Keep in mind that you won’t need to gather information from any step or adoptive parents or siblings, your spouse, or other in-laws. Once you know who to ask, you must know what to ask. The most important information to gather about your family members is:
- Their age and date of birth
- The age and cause of death, if applicable
- Any significant medical conditions they’ve experienced
- The age of onset for any significant medical conditions they’ve experienced
- Any known allergies
You can also ask questions related to their lifestyle, such as where they worked or the environment in which they lived. Lifestyle habits like health and diet are also essential bits of information to gather if you can.
Tips for Gathering Your Family Health History Effectively
Talking about an illness can be an awkward conversation to have with anyone, even family. Here are some tips to help start the conversation and make the most of your time with your family.
- Talk with family members one-on-one when you can. One-on-one conversations can help you go deeper into your discussion and gather as much information as possible. It will also make disclosing serious illnesses easier if your family member is hesitant about discussing their medical history.
- Start with your parents. They are the backbone of your genetics and often have additional information about other family members.
- If you are adopted, talk to your adoptive parents about any family history that might have been disclosed to them. If they don’t have anything to offer, go to adoption agency records.
- Write everything down, even if it seems insignificant. You never know what information might come in handy for future diagnosis or treatment.
- Get copies of medical records and death certificates when you can.
- Keep questions short but open-ended. Avoid asking yes or no questions. Follow up when necessary.
- Respect your family member’s privacy. Talking about their health may be difficult. Be understanding about their desire to keep things private, but stress the importance of obtaining this information for your health.
- If you’re having a hard time finding information, ask your family members directly if they have a history of any of the following:
- Congenital disabilities
- Early hearing loss
- Early vision loss
- Learning disorders or developmental delays
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, or schizophrenia
- Blood clots
- Substance abuse
- Neurological disorders
- History of surgery
- Current or past medications
What to Do with Your Family Health History Portrait
Once you’ve gathered all the appropriate information, and organized it in a way that makes sense to you, share the information with your healthcare provider. Based on the information you provide, your doctor may be able to suggest prevention tips or decide on possible screening and testing for early detection of certain diseases. Your doctor can also tailor a treatment plan to fit your needs more closely. While you can’t change your genes, you can change your lifestyle and environment to reduce your risk of severe medical conditions further.
The following lifestyle changes can lower your risk for several severe medical conditions:
- Change your diet if it’s not healthy
- Exercise daily
- Manage your weight
- Avoid smoking, alcohol, and other substance use and abuse
Also, it’s essential to educate yourself on any conditions that run in your family. Learn about the signs and symptoms, risks, preventative measures, treatment options, and the best ways to stay healthy if you are diagnosed.
Don’t get discouraged if your quest for your family health history comes up short. Some individuals are unaware of past diseases in the family, and some family members will die young before they have a chance to develop certain conditions. Even if you have no previous family health history, it’s essential to keep a record of your history. It won’t just help your healthcare provider quickly and effectively diagnose future conditions, but it will also be a beneficial resource for future generations.
Keep Your Family Health History Accessible for Emergency Room or Urgent Care Trips
If you come down with a sudden illness that requires urgent care or emergency attention, be sure to bring your family health history along. This can help your healthcare provider diagnose your problem more efficiently, especially if they aren’t familiar with you as a patient. Talk to your medical team about possible genetic conditions experienced by family members.
At University Urgent Care, our team of nurse practitioners are board-certified and experienced with a wide variety of genetically-linked medical conditions. Visit our urgent care TCU 7 days a week from 10 AM- 8 PM to discuss your symptoms and create a treatment plan that puts you on the path to better health. Give us a call at (817) 439-9539 or book an appointment online today.