While you’re giving thanks with your family on Thursday, Nov. 25 – Thanksgiving, as well as National Family Health History Day – consider throwing in a question or two about your clan’s health history, along with inhaling the turkey and pumpkin pie and catching up with loved ones.
Even if you don’t have a parent or sibling with cancer or diabetes, you might be more likely to get a disease if other people in your family have or had the disease. Knowing your family health history is an important first step.
How to Collect Your Family Health History
- Talk to your family. Write down the names of your close relatives from both sides of the family: parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews. Talk to these family members about what conditions they have or had, and at what age the conditions were first diagnosed.
- Ask questions. To find out about your risk for chronic diseases, ask your relatives about which of these diseases they have had and when they were diagnosed. Questions can include:
- Do you have any chronic diseases, such as heart disease or diabetes, or health conditions, such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol?
- Do you have any autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus?
- Have you had any other serious diseases, such as cancer or stroke? What type of cancer?
- How old were you when each of these diseases or health conditions was diagnosed? (If your relative doesn’t remember the exact age, knowing the approximate age is still useful.)
- What is your family’s ancestry? From what countries or regions did your ancestors come to the United States?
- What were the causes and ages of death for relatives who have died?
- Share family health history information with your doctor and other family members. If you are concerned about diseases that are common in your family, talk with your doctor at your next visit. Even if you don’t know all of your family health history information, share what you do know. Family health history information, even if incomplete, can help your doctor decide which screening tests you need and when those tests should start.
If you have a medical condition, such as cancer, heart disease, or diabetes, be sure to let your family members know about your diagnosis. If you have had genetic testing done, share your results with your family members. Knowing about your family history of a disease can motivate you to take steps to lower your chances of getting the disease. You can’t change your family health history, but you can change unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking, not exercising or being inactive, and poor eating habits. Talk with your doctor about steps that you can take, including whether you should consider early screening for the disease. If you have a family health history of disease, you may have the most to gain from lifestyle changes and screening tests.
The CDC offers advice for specific conditions:
- Colorectal cancer: If you have a mother, father, sister, brother, or another close family member who had colorectal cancer before age 50 or have multiple close family members with colorectal cancer, talk to your doctor about whether you should start screenings for this type of cancer at a younger age, have more frequent screenings, or use colonoscopy only instead of other tests.
- Breast or ovarian cancer: If you have a parent, sibling, or child with breast cancer, talk to your doctor about when you should start mammography screening. If your relative was diagnosed with breast cancer before age 50, if you have a close relative with ovarian cancer, or if you have a male relative with breast cancer, your doctor might refer you for cancer genetic counseling to find out if genetic testing is right for you.
- Heart disease: If you have family history of heart disease, you can take steps to lower your chances of getting heart disease. These steps can include eating a healthy diet, being physically active, maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking, limiting your alcohol use, having any screening tests that your doctor recommends, and, in some cases, taking medication. If you or a family member has LDL cholesterol levels over 190 mg/dL (or over 160 mg/dL in children), talk to your doctor about getting checked for familial hypercholesterolemia (FH), especially if you have family history of early heart disease or heart attacks.
- Diabetes: If your mother, father, brother, or sister has type 2 diabetes, you and your other family members could have prediabetes and are more likely to get type 2 diabetes. While most people with type 2 diabetes are older adults, more and more children, teens, and young adults are developing type 2 diabetes. But there are important steps you and your children can take to prevent type 2 diabetes and to reverse prediabetes if you have it. Ask your doctor whether you need an earlier screening for diabetes. Find out more about the National Diabetes Prevention Program’s lifestyle change program and how to find a program near you.
- Osteoporosis: This is a medical condition where bones become weak and are more likely to break. Family history of osteoporosis is one of a number of factors that make you more likely to develop osteoporosis. For example, if you are a white woman whose mother or father fractured a hip, talk to your doctor about screening for osteoporosis earlier (at about age 55, compared with age 65 for most women).
We wish you and your loved ones a Happy and Healthy Thanksgiving holiday!