Do you know everything you should know about your family health history?

Couple welcoming family members for diner party

From the color of your eyes to your sense of humor, there's a lot you can have in common with your family. One of these things is your family health history—or diseases and health conditions you may be more likely to be at risk of developing. 

Among the many pieces of your health and wellness puzzle, your family's health history is a crucial one. It can determine your likelihood of developing conditions including heart disease, cancer and dementia. While you can't change your genetics, you can take steps to prevent illnesses you're at risk of developing. Plus, you can watch for early signs of diseases in order to catch them when they're easier to treat.

Here's what you should know about family health history, including what information you should gather and how you can use it to stay healthy.

Why is it important to know your family health history?

While it might seem like your health is only about you, it's actually connected to your relatives in a number of ways. To start, you and your family members share genes.

"Genes are parts of your DNA that contain information about everything from what you look like to what diseases you might develop," explains Ameer Ajaj, MD, family medicine physician at Main Line HealthCare Primary Care in King of Prussia. "You get two copies of each gene—one from your mother and the other from your father. This means that if one of your parents has a gene that puts them at risk for heart disease, they can pass that risk to you."

You may also have similar behaviors as your family. From what foods you eat to how much you exercise, your healthy (or unhealthy) habits are often learned from family members.

Finally, you might share or have previously shared a physical environment with family members. Living in the same area can expose you to the same environmental factors, such as air pollution and the quality of water, which can play a role in your health.

Together, these factors are helpful clues that reveal which health conditions might run in your family. Keep in mind—if any of your relatives have a condition, that doesn't mean you'll automatically develop that disease. On the other hand, if you don't have a family history of a condition, you can still develop the illness or disorder.

What's included in my family health history?

Whether you can count your family members on one hand or you forget how many cousins you have on a regular basis, a complete record of your family history includes three generations of your relatives. Relatives to consider include:

  • Children
  • Siblings
  • Parents
  • Grandparents
  • Aunts and uncles
  • Nieces and nephews
  • Cousins

When you're gathering information about your family's health, collect information such as:

  • Major medical conditions
  • Ages of disease diagnosis
  • Causes of death
  • Ages of death

Collecting your family's health history may be as simple as talking at your next gathering or reaching out to family members. If you have access to any death certificates or family medical records, those can help, too.

"It might take some digging," says Dr. Ajaj, "but gathering as much as you can about your family's health history will provide you and your healthcare provider with valuable information to help you stay healthy."

How can knowing my family's health history help me stay healthy?

Your family's health history can help you determine what kind of risk you have for certain health conditions. If one of your family members has a disease, you may have a higher risk of developing it, too. Your risk gets even higher if more than one close relative has had that disease or a family member was diagnosed at a young age.

While you can't change the genes you were born with, you can change how proactive you are about your health. This starts with sharing this information with your healthcare provider. They can help decide which screening tests will be helpful to detect diseases as early as possible. Screening test options may include blood sugar testing, mammograms or colorectal cancer screening.

You can also adjust your habits to help prevent diseases. Eating healthy, staying active and not smoking can lower your risk of certain conditions.

Remember—practicing healthy habits are beneficial whether or not you have a family history of any conditions.

Whether your family is tight-knit or a little more distant, you do have one thing in common—your health history. Knowledge about these health conditions, combined with being proactive about your health, can go a long way toward staying healthy for years to come.

Next steps:

Schedule an appointment with Ameer Ajaj, MD
Learn more about primary care at Main Line Health
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