Why you need to know your family medical history

Why you need to know your family medical history

If your uncle has heart disease, your grandmother had a stroke and a cousin has diabetes, you’d likely feel empathy for them. But there’s something else you should do.

You should keep a record.

Your family medical history is a record of health information about you and your close relatives. This information can help your health care professionals determine if you, your family members or future generations might be at higher risk for developing particular conditions.

The information can also help your health care provider determine if you or someone in your family could benefit from meeting with a genetic counselor for a hereditary risk assessment.

Your family medical history should contain health information from three generations, including:

  • Parents
  • Grandparents
  • Children
  • Brothers and sisters
  • Aunts and uncles
  • Nieces and nephews
  • Cousins

The record should note family diagnoses of conditions such as:

  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure and high cholesterol
  • Stroke
  • Cancers such as breast cancer, colorectal cancer, skin cancer and prostate cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Neuromuscular disorders such as multiple sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease and others
  • Rare conditions such as cystic fibrosis and blood disorders such as sickle cell anemia, which can also have a hereditary factor

Risks for these and other genetic disorders can run in families. You and your family share genes and likely a similar environment and lifestyles. Your health care provider can discuss how these factors might affect your health risks.

It’s important to know that having diagnoses of these conditions in your family doesn’t mean you’ll develop any of the conditions, and people with no family history of these conditions still may have risks.

But knowing these conditions are in your family allows you and your health care provider to explore your options and take steps to reduce your risks.

For example, if you have an increased risk of certain cancers, your health care professional may suggest you have screenings like mammograms or colonoscopies more often than people with average risk.

You may want to consider lifestyle changes such as opting for a healthier diet, increasing your exercise activity and quitting smoking. These changes can reduce your risks of developing heart disease and other common disorders.

How to collect your family medical history

Start by visiting with your family members about the family medical history. Explain the benefits of the family medical history, and ask your family about their health and conditions others in the family may have.

Records such as death certificates and obituaries can provide additional information.

Once you’ve gathered information, plan to keep it up to date with changes. Share it with others in the family so they can help keep it updated. Share this valuable information with your health care professionals as well.

Dr. David M. Jenks is an internal medicine physician at the Aurora Health Center in Milwaukee, Wis.

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  1. Hi Dr. Jenks-

    Thanks for the article! I’ve been thinking about starting a family history of medical conditions. Do you know of any good templates / forms to track this information? It would be great to be able to cohesively organize this information as I collect it. Any resources that you can point me toward would be great!

    Thanks in advance.

  2. Another part of patient’s medical history that medical providers don’t ask about but should, is the family history of addiction, depression, and mental illness. There is evidence that these diseases have a genetic component. If this is included in a patient’s medical record early on, it can be watched for, treated from the get go and help lessen the stigma associated with such diseases.

About the Author

Dr. David Jenks
Dr. David Jenks

David M. Jenks, MD is an Internal Medicine physician at the Aurora Health Center in Milwaukee, WI