Skip to main content

How much do you know about your family's medical history? While the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday is a day to remember our blessings, it’s also an opportune time to recognize National Family Health History Day (November 25), which promotes the idea of taking a day when your family is gathered to discuss your family health history. So, before you finish the last slice of pie, take a few minutes to catch up with your relatives and brush up on some important medical facts. What you find out could end up saving your, or another family member’s, life.

“Family health history is important because it helps your doctor determine if you might be at a higher risk of getting a disease. It allows your physician to start screening you earlier for certain diseases, if necessary,” says Maria Janine Ramdial, MD, an internal medicine specialist at Summit Health. “This leads to earlier diagnosis and the implementation of lifestyle modifications and medications.”  

What is a Family Health History? 

A family health history is a record of the diseases and health conditions that affect your family, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The same way many of your relatives may have brown hair or blue eyes, most families have at least one chronic disease that tends to affect them. Knowing your family medical history can help you prevent disease or manage it early before it becomes a problem.  

“Having a family history of a disease means that there may be members of your family who have been diagnosed with a particular disease. This does not mean that you will definitely get that disease,” says Dr. Ramdial.  

There are many factors that cause disease, including the environment you live in and lifestyle choices like your diet or the amount of exercise you get. Family history is arguably one of the most important influences on whether you will develop a particular condition.  

“It is important to know and ask about common diseases such as heart disease and diabetes, but also about different types of cancer. For instance, you should know the specific type of cancer your family members have had previously or have currently,” she says.  

There are also genetic diseases such as cystic fibrosis and sickle cell disease, adds Dr. Ramdial. These conditions are caused by changes or mutations in a single gene.  

I Know My Family History. Now What? 

Knowing your family history can empower you to take steps to prevent disease. Unfortunately, you can’t change your genes. But if heart disease, diabetes, or a certain type of cancer runs in the family, you can take these important steps to lower your risk.  

  • Talk to your doctor. Have an open and honest discussion with your physician about your family history at your next physical exam or annual wellness visit.  
  • Get screened earlier. If certain diseases such as colon or breast cancer run in your family, talk to your doctor about being screened before the recommended age. For example, if your mother, sister, or aunt had breast cancer, your physician may tell you to get a mammography earlier based on the age at which your family members were diagnosed. Or if you had a father with colorectal cancer, you would probably need to book your colonoscopy about 10 years earlier than the immediate family member was diagnosed.  
  • Make lifestyle changes that lower your risk. Be proactive about making lifestyle modifications, such as dieting and exercise, if you have family members with diabetes or heart conditions.  
  • Get genetic testing. Simple blood tests exist today that can help predict certain disease, such as the BRCA 1 or 2 gene for breast cancer.  

Collecting Your Family History 

When you gather your family history, you will need to go back in time. Collect information from siblings, parents, grandparents, uncles, and aunts.  

Step One - Have a Chat

Ask your close relatives on both sides if they know of any diseases or conditions that have affected members of the family. Set aside a few minutes during a holiday or birthday party to have this discussion.  

Tell them that you will keep what you learn within the family and are using it to help future generations stay healthy.  

“Start by talking to your family members one-on-one. Some people may feel embarrassed about the diagnosis, and others may not share due to privacy concerns,” suggests Dr. Ramdial.  

Questions to Ask  

  • ​​Do you know of any relatives with chronic diseases like cancer or diabetes?  
  • Did any family members die prematurely? If so, from what condition? Any history of heart attacks or stroke? 
  • Are there any genetic abnormalities that run in the family?  

Step Two: Do Research

If your relatives do not know what affects your family, you may have to investigate further. Try connecting with distant relatives who may know more. Finding death certificates can also be helpful.  

Step Three: Keep a Record

Write down what you learn for future generations. There are also online databases that can help, such as My Family Health Portrait. These platforms have family health questionnaires and can help organize and track family health information.