My father died of leukemia when he was 48. My mother, age 82, was recently diagnosed with lymphoma. I am the youngest of six children and fairly certain I’m not the only member of our Brady Bunch-sized family to wonder just what these two diagnoses might mean when it comes to my own health. Just how much does family history of a disease like cancer affect our own risk?
A family health history is a compilation of information regarding the health of close relatives. When one or more family members have health problems, such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes or stroke, other members may be at greater risk for the same illnesses.
It is important to note that a family history of illness is not a guarantee that the sickness will affect others in the family. Similarly, not having a history of an illness doesn’t ensure that members of the family are immune to that condition.
So, just because my parents were both diagnosed with a form of blood cancer, my siblings and I are not automatically destined to develop the same. Nor are we guaranteed that we will evade diabetes because we do not have a family history of the illness.
Importance of knowing your family’s health history
However, knowing your relatives’ medical information can help you reduce your risk through using that knowledge to determine whether early and regular screenings and preventive lifestyle modifications are appropriate.
According to Dr. Joseph Aquilina, a family medicine doctor and chief medical officer of SharpCare Medical Group, family history is very important when considering the timing and type of routine health screenings.
Dr. Aquilina notes that widespread screening for diseases like prostate cancer did not necessarily lead to better health outcomes for all people, but they can be helpful for those with a strong family history. “Other screening exams, including mammography, are proven to be helpful for women with or without a family history of breast cancer and may need to be done sooner in those who have a family history of the disease showing up at an early age,” he says.
Dr. Aquilina says that it is very important to talk to your doctor about any illness in your first-degree relatives, including parents and siblings. Next, you should discuss any big issues or patterns seen among aunts, uncles and cousins. “Especially mention fatal conditions that happened in otherwise healthy or young people,” he says.
How your family’s health history can lead to better health care
Based on your family health history, your doctor may recommend early and frequent screenings and exams. You might also be encouraged to review and improve your lifestyle choices — your diet, amount of regular exercise, and use of substances, such as alcohol and nicotine products — to help decrease your personal risk of disease.
“Fortunately, as we have adopted healthier lifestyles and gotten better at screening, we have seen the incidence and mortality of certain diseases decrease,” Dr. Aquilina says. “This is especially true for heart disease and some cancers. A healthy lifestyle can’t prevent all disease, but it can definitely lower your risk for some.”
I consider myself lucky to know my family’s health history, even if some of it may seem daunting. Having the knowledge can influence my health care decision-making process and affect my lifestyle choices. However, for those who cannot easily access their biological family’s medical history, both at-home and clinical DNA tests have become a helpful tool.
“If someone does not know their family history, a DNA test can provide valuable data,” Dr. Aquilina says. “The results can indicate conditions to which you might be genetically predisposed, as well as help your doctor select which drugs might work best for you and recommend screenings.”
Compiling your family health history
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends you talk to relatives about family members’ health, any medical problems, their age when conditions were diagnosed, and age of death. A family reunion or celebration offers a great opportunity to gather information. Medical records and other documents, such as obituaries and death certificates, can also provide important details.
The Surgeon General’s My Family Health Portrait is an internet-based tool you and your loved ones can use to create a family health history. Always share what you learn with your doctor and continue to keep the information updated.
Jen Spengler is a health and wellness writer with Sharp HealthCare.