Think back to the countless times when you’ve sat in a doctor’s waiting room, filling out a family health history questionnaire before an appointment. Many times, this is done in a rush with little thought to the importance or accuracy of the knowledge we have. Do we really have the answer to every question about our immediate family’s medical history, let alone our grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins?
“There is no such a thing as providing too much information,” says Ramy Sayed, MD, an internal and pediatric physician. “It is highly encouraged to provide as much information about the family history as possible to your health provider.” Even among your closest relatives, there may be health risks you don’t know about.
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With holiday gatherings on the horizon, it may be a good time to bring up any questions that you may have about your family’s medical history. These talks don’t have to be awkward either. A genuine interest in the health of your loved ones can help you discover ways to better inform your own medical decisions.
What to ask
A complete family history should include information about three generations of relatives and their ethnic backgrounds. Ask a wide range of questions, focusing on conditions where heredity could be a risk factor. A few examples include:
- Has anyone in our family passed away at a young age from a disease?
- Has a family member been diagnosed with cancer? Were they diagnosed before 50?
- Does heart disease run in our family? Has anyone had a heart attack or stroke and at what age?
- Have any family members developed diabetes and how old were they when diagnosed?
- Do you have high blood pressure or high cholesterol?
- Is there a history of autoimmune disorders within our family?
- Does our family have dementia or Alzheimer’s?
- Have any of our relatives suffered from a mental illness?
If the answers to any of the above are yes, don’t hesitate to follow up with any further questions. Ask about age of diagnosis, whether conditions affected multiple generations or if there were noticeable signs and symptoms. If there is a history of cancer in your family, it’s relevant to note the types, if any relatives have had multiple cancer diagnoses or if multiple family members have had the same type of cancer.
Why it’s important
“Even though a patient cannot change their genetic makeup, knowing family history can help alter that risk for a better health outcome,” says Sayed.
With the help of your doctor, you can also come up with prevention techniques for certain conditions. This may include lifestyle changes through diet, exercise and managing stress. This also may include medication, regular health screenings or genetic testing.
Heredity is just one risk factor in the development of some diseases. “Not only do family members share genes, they may also share the environment, lifestyle and habits, all of which increase or decrease the risk for developing certain health problems or diseases,” notes Sayed.
It’s also important to remember that the genetic links between some diseases and conditions are still being researched. Even if your chance of inheriting a condition is greater, that does not mean you will definitely be diagnosed with it.
How to ask
If it’s appropriate, Sayed thinks that holiday gatherings can be a good time to discuss family medical history. “Try to talk to family members about their health condition by asking about why’s and how’s of their disease,” he suggests. “Even of the family members that are healthy, asking about previous medical problems could be a conversation starter for an evening.”
Mental health may be a particularly tough topic to bring up. Although common, some families find it taboo to speak about. “Most of the patients only know about severe mental illness in the family from hospitalizations or recurrent exacerbation of the mental illness,” says Sayed. A thoughtful way to broach the subject may be to share a recent news story or statistic you read about mental health. If you feel comfortable, talk about your own experience to open up a dialogue.
Where to store your info
After gathering your family history, keep it accessible so you can have it for future doctor appointments.
It can be as simple as handwriting all of your information to keep within your wallet or in a folder to take with you to appointments. Along with your history, write out the types of medication you take and their corresponding dosages.
Having a complete family history ready for your doctor to view will save you time and help both of you make informed decisions about your healthcare. Be sure to share this information within your family as well, so you can help all of your loved ones live a healthier life.