Why it Pays to Dig into Your Family Health History—and How to Do It

Do you have high cholesterol? You may not be too concerned about it today—but that may change when you know more about your family history of high cholesterol and heart disease.

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Why You Should Care

Do you know what caused Aunt Myra to pass away? Or what those white pills Dad takes really are for? Many of us, close to family or not, are in the dark about the specifics of our family's health history—what problems they have or have had and why.

If that's the case for you, you may be missing out on vital information that can help shape moves you take to keep yourself healthy.

Having a family history of heart disease does play in to your own risk for heart disease, as do other factors such as being obese, having diabetes or a smoking habit. High cholesterol itself plays a major role in heart disease and heart attack. Knowing that heart concerns are in your past can help you and your doctor better address your cholesterol and manage your heightened risk.

Generally, it's recommended that adults get their cholesterol checked once every 5 years. But, if you have a family history of heart disease, your doctor will likely recommend that you get checked more often.

The catch? Your doctor has to know that heart disease runs in your family.

Getting Your Family's Medical History

Family history plays a major role in many health concerns, not just heart disease. That’s why more doctors are recommending patients compile a family health history—a document that details illnesses that run in their families.

"Finding out what runs in your family can help you predict problems you're at risk for and take action to prevent them," says Larry Thompson, a spokesperson for the National Human Genome Research Institute, which is exploring the genetic basis for many conditions.

To uncover your health heritage:

Make a List

At a minimum, look at the health history of your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, as well as siblings and their children. "A good rule of thumb is at least three generations, or, even better, two generations up and two generations down," says Robin L. Bennett, M.D., assistant director of the Medical Genetics Clinic at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle. You should also note the age at which conditions developed, as well as at what age anyone passed away—and why.

If interviewing relatives isn’t possible, follow the paper trail. "Family bibles are a great source of information, as are any places where people have saved genealogical information," says Kelly E. Ormond, M.Sc., associate professor and director of the graduate program in genetic counseling at Northwestern University in Chicago. Birth and death certificates, baby books and hospital medical records are also good sources.

Format Findings

A good way to structure your information is by creating a family tree. "It allows you to put reams of medical records on one page," says Dr. Bennett. "Plus, it's easy to update."

It also allows you to easily discern recurring issues. "In general, a health problem that develops under age 50 could be a risk, especially if it occurs among more than one relative," Dr. Bennett says.

Share Your Family Health History

Ormond suggests letting your primary care doctor in on your research, and, ideally, updating it every year or two. If you and your physician discover worrisome health trends, you can devise a plan for reducing your risk of a given disease or catching it early.

And tell other family members what you've found. "By sharing this information," says Dr. Bennett, "you may be helping to save a life."

Smart Habits

Now that you've collected your family’s health history, how can it help you? According to Northwestern's Ormond, you can:

  • Adopt lifestyle measures such as exercise and eating well to help stave off heart disease and other concerns, such as cancer and diabetes.
  • Ask your doctor whether you should have screening tests earlier or at more frequent intervals than is generally recommended. Or discuss using more precise screening tools.
  • Talk with your doctor about whether you would benefit from medications that lower risk for a disease that runs in your family.
  • If your doctor suggests it, visit a genetics specialist to assess your risks and test for certain diseases.

Adapted from "Family Ties" by Beth Howard, published in our sister publication Remedy's Healthy Living, Spring 2007

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at Healthcommunities.com

Published: 02 May 2011

Last Modified: 21 Jan 2015