The Importance of Understanding Your Family Health History

February 08,2023 |
Father and son sitting and talking about family health history.

Every time you go to the doctor’s office, there are questions on the new patient form regarding your family health history. Does anyone in your family suffer from a chronic condition? If so, what? When were they diagnosed? If you have deceased family members, what was the cause? All this information may seem like a formality, but it can provide valuable insight into potential health risks that you may have inherited from your ancestors. This information can help you and your healthcare provider make informed decisions about your health, including what preventative measures to take, what screenings to have, and what treatments to consider. Here, we’ll discuss the importance of understanding your family health history and how to use it as a powerful tool in maintaining your health and wellbeing.


What is Family Health History?

Family health history, also known as a family medical history, is a record of the health conditions, diseases, and illnesses that have occurred in a person's family over several generations. It typically includes information about close relatives such as parents, grandparents, siblings, and children. However, for a more extensive record, you may also want to gather information on great-grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, and even your nieces and nephews.

The goal is to identify any patterns or trends that may be relevant to your current or future health. Family health history may also include things like exercise habits, food intake, and other environmental factors like geographic location. Essentially, a complete record of a family’s medical history will have anything that can affect your health and wellbeing either now or in the future.


Why Should You Know Your Family Health History

Although what you eat, where you live, and your lifestyle habits as a whole play an important role in your overall health and longevity, genetics can be even more powerful. Since you and your family members share genes, gathering more information regarding your family’s medical history is a great way to be proactive about your future. Some of the most important reasons why you should learn your family health history include the following.


1. Identify Potential Genetic Risks

Some health conditions and diseases, such as certain types of cancer or heart disease, can have a genetic component. By knowing your family health history, you may be able to identify patterns or risks of chronic conditions or degenerative disorders that may run in your family. If present in your family medical history, you may be at a higher risk of developing it yourself. For example, if someone in your family has had prostate cancer, you may be at a higher risk. If more than one person in your family has had prostate cancer, the risk increases. Other conditions that may carry a genetic risk include the following:

- Heart disease

- Stroke

- Diabetes

- Certain cancers

- Osteoporosis

- Depression

- Asthma

- Blood clots

- Autoimmune diseases

- High cholesterol

- High blood pressure

- Arthritis

- Dementia

In some cases, individuals may choose to see a genetic counselor who can provide more in-depth advice on how to interpret a family's health history and what risks they may be facing.


2. Receive Personalized Health Care

When you know what conditions run in your family, you have a better opportunity to personalize your health care needs. In fact, thoroughly collected family medical history can help healthcare providers tailor your care to your specific needs and risks. They can use this information to make recommendations for screenings, tests, and other preventative measures that may be appropriate for you.


3. Early Detection and Intervention

Knowing your family health history can help detect diseases or conditions early, which can lead to better outcomes and more effective treatment. People who are at risk for certain conditions, such as prostate cancer or other urologic cancers may begin their yearly screenings earlier (i.e., genomic testing for prostate cancer) in life or your urologist may recommend more frequent exams to help ensure that you catch any abnormalities early. Your healthcare provider will help you determine the best time to start certain screenings or tests based on your family health history and risk level.


4. Identifying Unhealthy Lifestyle Patterns

Another benefit of gathering your family health history is the ability to better understand how your lifestyle habits may impact your future health. Analyzing your family’s health can identify unhealthy lifestyle patterns that you might want to avoid or change. It can also provide you with a bit of a reality check regarding the negative impact of unhealthy habits.


5. Helping Other Family Members

Finally, after gathering everyone’s medical history, consider sharing it with other members in your family. In doing so, you can help them identify potential health risks and take steps to protect their health. Knowing your family health history can be an extremely valuable tool in helping you and your healthcare provider make informed decisions about your health and wellbeing. If you have any questions regarding the importance of your family’s medical history, don’t hesitate to ask your doctor.


How to Build a Family Health History

Building a family health history can be a complex task, especially if your family isn’t close or on the best terms. However, in doing so, you can help everyone take a more proactive approach to their health and reduce the risk of serious complications from late detection. The best advice is to start with the basics and try to be sensitive when dealing with certain subjects.

Collect information about your relatives' health conditions, including any chronic diseases, urologic changes, genetic conditions, and premature deaths. Try to gather information from as many generations as possible, but aim for at least three. Inquire about specific conditions or diseases that may have affected your family and about any symptoms or treatments that were used. Some of the information to ask about in your research includes the following:

- Major medical issues that may be inherited (exclude injuries)

- History of cancer in the family

- Age of diagnosis

- Cause of death for deceased family members

- Age of death for deceased family members

- Ethnic background of your family

- Environmental factors like geographic location, use of tobacco/alcohol, lifestyle habits, activity levels, etc.

- Information about pregnancies

Once you’ve gathered all of the information you need, organize it. You can create a chart or document that lists the health conditions of your relatives and the relationship of each relative to you. This can be helpful for visualizing patterns or trends in the health of your family. Over the years, as new information becomes available, be sure to update your family’s medical history and share it with others. Keep your documents in a secure location, such as a locked cabinet or safe, and limit access to only those who need it.


What to Do After Learning About Your Family Health History

After you’ve compiled a comprehensive account of your family’s medical history, share it with your healthcare provider. In doing so, you can work together to create a plan that will address any risks and help you plan for a healthy future. This may include making lifestyle changes, undergoing screenings or tests, or beginning a supplement regimen. Some action items to take after learning more about your family health history includes the following:

Make Lifestyle Changes

Since you can’t change your genes, it’s important to take a proactive approach to your health by improving any unhealthy behaviors or lifestyle habits. This may include getting more exercise throughout the week, changing your diet, quitting smoking, and trying to be more active as a whole. Your doctor can help you identify the best lifestyle changes to make based on your family health history.

Undergo the Necessary Screenings

Your doctor may also recommend undergoing specific screenings and genetic testing to get more clarity on the degree of your risk. Certain screenings, such as mammograms, blood-sugar tests, or a colonoscopy, may be recommended at an earlier age or more frequently if your family history points to a higher risk for certain conditions. Genetic counseling also may be recommended. Where applicable, preemptive treatments, such as calcium and vitamin D supplements if you’re at higher risk for osteoporosis, may be recommended.

Regardless of your family health history, managing any underlying conditions is important in your overall health and longevity. For management of temporary or chronic urologic issues, Byram Healthcare is here to help. We carry a wide selection of high-quality urologic products that can help you take back control of your life. To learn more, or to speak with a professional regarding questions or ongoing management, contact Byram Healthcare today.

Byram Healthcare is a member of the National Association for Continence’s Trusted Partners Program, whose mission is to provide quality continence care through education, collaboration and advocacy. We continue to build partnerships in the clinical community to ensure we focus on what’s best for the patient.