Family Matters: Know Your Family History

The U.S. Surgeon General’s Office wants you to sit down and have a chat with your family—about their health history. The Surgeon General’s Family History Initiative aims to educate people about the importance of knowing their family’s medical history.

Heart disease, cancer, diabetes and other chronic diseases and conditions tend to run in families, and knowing your family’s health history can steer you toward important lifestyle choices that may help keep you from developing these diseases. But even though 96 percent of Americans recognize that their family’s health history is an important factor in predicting their future health, only one in three has actually taken the time to research and document it.

Identifying the diseases and conditions prevalent in your family will help you make decisions to change your behaviors, environment and lifestyle, and give you the best possible chance for a long and healthy life. Here’s how you can get started.

  1. Learn about your family’s health history and write it down. Find out the exact cause of death of your relatives, including grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles and first cousins, as well as their age at diagnosis and any chronic diseases they may have had. Get medical records whenever possible. The more specific the information, the better. If you know that your uncle died of a heart attack, find out the details of his heart disease and how old he was. Chronic diseases account for seven of the top 10 causes of death in the United States, each of which can be passed down through families. Red flags to look for in your family tree include heart disease, diabetes, cancer, liver and kidney disease, sickle cell anemia and high cholesterol.
  2. Work with your doctor to create a risk-reduction plan. Your physician can help you put the information you’ve gathered to work by recommending lifestyle changes and scheduling additional screenings. Your physician also can recommend earlier or more frequent screenings. For instance, if your mother died of breast cancer at age 40, your physician may suggest that you begin getting an annual mammogram earlier than is usually recommended for the general population. Write down your physician’s suggestions and take them seriously. And remember to keep your doctor up to date—pass along information about family members’ health as it becomes available.
  3. Make healthy lifestyle changes to help counter any inherited risks. Knowing your family’s health history won’t do you any good if you don’t follow the doctor’s orders. Stay on top of your general screening schedule, but don’t expect your doctor to remind you. If you know that earlier or more frequent screenings are in order, make the appointment. And keep it.
Also, remember that making healthy lifestyle choices can help lower your risk for a number of conditions and diseases, not just those that appear in your family’s health history. Just because there’s no record of cancer in your family doesn’t make smoking a safe choice.


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