It’s finally the holiday season and many are gearing up to visit their family members for Thanksgiving. As you gather to express gratitude for your blessings and each other, you might want to consider yet another special occasion: National Family Health History Day. If you’ve never taken the time to discuss your family health history, what better opportunity than when you’re all gathered together in person.
Here’s why knowing your family health history is so important, what it could tell you about your level of risk, and how it could impact your ability to prevent future illness.
Family Health History Significance
You may have noticed that your doctor asks for your family health history each time you visit. Do you have a family history of high blood pressure? What about cancer? Does anyone in your family have a chronic disease? These and other questions fill your intake paperwork and will likely be discussed during your appointment.
If you aren’t as knowledgeable about health care, you may not realize the importance of your family’s health history. The fact is, you are at a higher risk to develop certain diseases and conditions if your family members have encountered them.
“If you have family members with medical conditions, you may be wondering which family members’ health histories are most relevant to your own health,” said Dr. Lloyd Cassidy, a Family Medicine Specialist at ThedaCare. “Focus your energy on learning more about the health of your parents, siblings, and grandparents, versus the health history of distant relatives.”
When your doctor is aware of your family health history, they can further personalize your care to reduce your risk of some conditions and be mindful of related symptoms. Ultimately, this leads to better care for you and the potential for better health outcomes.
It may be overwhelming trying to understand which diseases are impacted by genetics, and which aren’t. There are certain diseases and conditions which can’t be passed down, primarily consisting of infectious diseases that are transmitted through external influences.
For example, conditions like Lyme disease and endocarditis are scary, but they aren’t inherited. Similarly, the flu, meningitis, and whooping cough are acute infectious diseases that aren’t passed down from family members. Chronic diseases like HIV/AIDS, chronic hepatitis, and human papilloma virus (HPV), are also not associated with genetic risk.
“A family history of any noncommunicable disease might be hereditary,” explained Dr. Cassidy. “Diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, for example. If you have a parent, sibling, or grandparent with a disease or condition of this sort, you may be at heightened risk of developing it yourself.”
It’s also important to note that your level of risk may be impacted by the type of disease and the age at which your family members were diagnosed. For example, your risk of breast cancer increases significantly if you have a family history of the disease, especially if the affected family member was younger than 50 when diagnosed. In fact, up to 10% of breast cancer cases are inherited!
Family Medical History Essentials
Arming yourself with a thorough understanding of your family’s health history can help you and your family members take a proactive approach to improving and maintaining health, but it can admittedly be an overwhelming conversation, or even an uncomfortable one. The fact is, getting to the important details will require being direct and firm in your questioning, but it is meant to benefit everyone. We suggest starting with the following questions:
- Is there a history of cancer in our family? What kind?
- Does anyone have a heart condition?
- Has anyone been diagnosed with diabetes?
- Are you getting annual checkups to maintain and monitor your health?
- Have any of our family members passed away due to heart disease, stroke, or other chronic diseases?
“Cancer, diabetes, and heart disease should be a focus of your conversation because they are among the most common causes of death for people in the United States,” explained Dr. Cassidy. “In fact, heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States.”
Reduce Your Risk
Here’s the catch – you don’t have to accept that family history of a disease makes it an inevitable part of your future. In fact, there are ways you can reduce your risk for many of the diseases that run in your family through simple lifestyle choices.
“Smoking increases your risk of heart disease, cancer, stroke and many other diseases, so if you’re a current smoker, efforts toward quitting should be a priority,” advised Dr. Cassidy. “In addition to avoiding tobacco products, reducing your intake of alcohol, maintaining a healthy weight, and staying active can all significantly lower your risk of many chronic diseases.”
Once you’ve identified the diseases that run in your family, it’s important to discuss them with your doctor. A family medicine specialist, like Dr. Cassidy, can monitor your health for signs and symptoms of diseases that run in your family. They can also help you develop a strategy to keep your risk for these diseases as low as possible.
So, as you gather with family this week, make it a point to share more than a meal. Equipping each other with the information needed to make educated care and lifestyle choices increases the likelihood that the entire family can enjoy many gatherings to come.
Get the most out of your family health history by entering it into the Ripple by ThedaCare app, where you’ll receive personalized care recommendations and reminders to help you minimize your risk.