What health risks run in your family?

MAY 12, 2016
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At family gatherings, you and your loved ones probably trade favorite stories that were passed down over the years. Well, the next time you get together, consider sharing other kinds of stories — ones that can help you shape your family health history.


A family health history, also called a medical family tree, can help you learn about health issues that may run in your family. How do you make one? Simply write down a list of all of your relatives and their medical conditions, along with their ages at onset of those conditions, and the age and cause of death for those who’ve passed away. From this detailed list, you can understand your risk for certain conditions — then, take steps to improve your health and your family’s health.


We asked Leslie Manace Brenman, MD, a clinical geneticist at Kaiser Permanente Oakland Medical Center, about how knowing your family’s health history can boost your own health.


Q: Why should someone put together a family health history?


A: All of that information you collect in your family health history becomes a valuable source to help guide your own best preventive and proactive medical care. In some families, being proactive about health, based on your family medical history, can save lives. Basically, a family health history is one of the most powerful tools in modern medicine.


Q: What does it mean if a certain disease or condition runs in my family?


A: It may increase your risk of getting that disease, especially if several relatives were affected and they were diagnosed when young. If you know that you’re at risk, you can work with your doctor to help lower your risk. For example, if you have a “strong” family history of type 2 diabetes, this increases your chance of developing diabetes. Knowing that information can influence the screening tests your health providers will offer. Or, if your mother had a heart attack at 52, you may need to keep your cholesterol lower than the general public and watch your blood pressure numbers.


Q: How do you create a history?


A: You can draw a medical family tree yourself or use the Surgeon General’s online tool, called “My Family Health Portrait.” The standard format is a 3-generation family tree, which includes you, your parents, and their parents, with all of the siblings and children for each of these generations. Try to get as many medical details as possible about each person, including:


  • The specific names of their diseases or disorders
  • Treatments and interventions
  • The origin location of cancer
  • The age that each family member was first diagnosed with a condition
  • Information about intellectual disability, birth defects, and lifestyle habits — such as smoking, alcohol, or drug use.

For most medical conditions, it’s usually a combination of genetic traits, such as a tendency to put on weight, plus lifestyle choices — like diet, exercise, smoking, or alcohol use — that ultimately leads to disease.


Q: What should you do with the history you gather?


A: You should share your family health history with your primary doctor, who can help you with questions you might have and speak with you about possible preventive measures or screenings to enhance your health. Also, be sure to pass this information to your children and other relatives — so they, too, can live longer, healthier lives.

TOPICSdiseasesfamily historyhealth risksinherited