Some health conditions can be passed down by parents to their children. If a close relative has one of these hereditary diseases, you are more likely than the general population to develop it too. However, knowing your risks can guide you in making changes to benefit your long-term health.
Why is it important to know your family's medical history?
If your family has a history of developing a particular condition, you may be at higher risk than the general population of developing it too. Knowing your family’s medical history will help you identify these risks. You’ll then know which changes will be most valuable in helping you to decrease your risk.
When you see a doctor for the first time, they will probably ask you about the health of your immediate relatives. Keep your doctor updated as you get older since this will help them manage your particular health risks.
If you are planning to start a family, you may wish to investigate whether any genetic disorders can be found in you or your partner’s family trees.
In other family-related health conditions, while your genes may increase the risk of developing a disease, they are not the only cause. Heart disease, diabetes and some cancers fall into this category.
Are you at risk?
It’s a good idea for everyone to record their own family health history. Being proactive in discovering your risks is better than waiting until a disease appears.
How can you learn about your family’s medical history?
You can investigate your family’s medical history by talking to relatives, beginning with those closest to you, such as your parents, children, and brothers and sisters.
Some people may not want to talk about their health, but any information is useful, even if it is incomplete. Record your own health details too.
Next, talk to or ask about more distant relatives:
- grandparents or grandchildren
- aunts and uncles
- nieces and nephews
- half-brothers and half-sisters
You may be able to research the cause of death of older relatives by obtaining their death certificates. You can apply for a death certificate from a state-based birth, deaths and marriages registry.
What should be included in a family medical history?
For each person in your family medical tree, record the following information:
- year of birth and age (or year of death)
- ethnicity (because some conditions are more prevalent in certain ethnic groups)
- major medical conditions and when each one developed (especially if before 60 years of age)
- lifestyle issues that could be related (such as smoking or type of employment)
Keep your record in a safe place and update it regularly. You might like to share the family medical information with other close relatives, such as children or siblings.
What diseases run in the family?
Diseases and conditions that can run in the family include:
- diabetes (both type 1 and type 2)
- genetic disorders (such as haemophilia and Down syndrome)
- heart disease
- high blood pressure
- high cholesterol
- some types of mental illness
- some cancers (such as breast, ovarian, bowel and prostate cancers)
- stillbirth or multiple miscarriages
What can you do if you have a family history of a disease?
You should speak to your doctor if you are concerned about a particular disease in your family medical tree. It may be a disease that has occurred in many close relatives, or has shown up in relatives at a young age. Remember that you will not necessarily develop the disease, and you may develop conditions for which there is no family history.
Your doctor can advise you on whether you should take any action. For example, it might be appropriate to:
- investigate your risks in more detail (for example, your doctor may refer you to a genetics health professional to discuss genetic testing)
- take preventive action to reduce your risk (for example, make lifestyle changes to reduce the likelihood of type 2 diabetes or heart disease)
- get more regular check-ups or even early treatment
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Last reviewed: June 2019