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Why Is It Important to Know My Family Medical History?

  • January 24, 2019
Why Is It Important to Know My Family Medical History?

During an appointment with a family physician or healthcare provider, we’re often asked a number of questions surrounding our lifestyle habits, personal health history, and the health of our family members. Sharing this information can help inform current health issues a patient may be struggling with and allows doctors to work with their patients on how to prevent future disease and sickness.

Sharing family history is especially important when it comes to talking with a doctor. Determining which diseases and cancer may run in our families can help when deciding what cancer screenings to keep on your radar and what tests your doctor should recommend. Genetic makeup can’t be controlled, but unhealthy habits might make you more vulnerable to genetic cancers and diseases.

Even if you have a high percentage of developing a genetic illness, catching cancer or disease in its earliest stages is extremely important for treatment. This could mean a simple blood test with your primary physician or seeing a specialist on a regular basis. After speaking with your family doctor, they should be able to recommend what testing to prioritize and which specialists to work with.

Family History As A Predictor For Disease Risk

Breast Cancer

Individuals who have close relatives with a history of breast cancer should especially stay up to date on their screenings and checkups. Unfortunately, a woman with a first-degree female relative who suffered from breast cancer is twice as likely to develop the disease herself. In these situations, family members should also know at what age a diagnosis was given. The younger the disease was developed, the greater chance there is for a direct family member to develop breast cancer.

The earlier breast cancer can be caught, the higher the rate of survival is. It’s recommended that those with a strong genetic history get clinical breast exams every 6-12 months, mammograms annually over the age of 30, and a breast MRI every year starting 10 years younger than your affected relatives. It’s generally recommended that all women perform self-breast exams and women over age 40 should get annual mammograms. Men should also be aware of their family’s history with breast cancer and have clinical exams done with their doctor.

Prostate Cancer

Family history can be the strongest risk factor for prostate cancer, with between 5-10 of patients being diagnosed with hereditary connections. Studies have found a few different genetic connections that coincide with prostate cancer and developing new ways to screen for cancer. While there is currently no way to test for a prostate cancer gene, the best preventative measure to take is a prostate-screening antigen (PSA) test which measures the blood for levels of a protein produced by the prostate.

Genetic connections aside, prostate cancer is the second most common cancer for men in America. All men aged 50 and above should be screened for prostate cancer on the recommendation of their doctor, and men at high hereditary risk should begin screenings at age 40. As with many cancers, the sooner a developing cancer is found, the quicker it can be treated by healthcare professionals.

Heart Disease

As the leading cause of death in the United States, heart disease can arise from a number of risk factors. Genetic changes and heredity are among these factors, and making note of family members that have struggled or passed away from heart disease can help a patient assess their genetic risk. At this time, specific genetic testing is not available outside of a controlled research setting, but doctors and scientists are looking toward ways to better predict risk of heart disease.

For now, the best way to reduce your risk is to communicate with your doctor about close family members who have dealt with the disease and discuss how to monitor blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and diet. If you are at a greater risk for heart disease and related heart issues, it’s important to take into consideration how your habits are affecting your overall wellness. Smoking and a poor diet and exercise regimen will all put you at a greater risk for heart disease but leaves you even more vulnerable if you have a high genetic risk.

Environmental Factors Affect Health

Aside from specific genes within the body, families also tend to share spaces, environmental factors, and habits that can lead to related health conditions. When discussing family health with your doctor, it’s valuable to discuss even diseases that may not be hereditary, but could serve as a link. While the root of many lung cancers may not be genetic, sharing an environment could help doctors connect the dots.

For example, mesothelioma is a cancer caused by inhaling asbestos and mostly affects workers who were exposed on the job. However, family members of construction and factory workers have also been exposed to the toxin through “second hand” exposure when asbestos was accidentally brought into the home on clothing worn at work. Knowing if a family member has been exposed to a harmful substance in a shared environment can help inform future testing.

How To Gather Family Health History

After understanding why family health is so important, making a plan on how to gather family information is the next step. Making a point to converse at family gatherings and holidays about what diseases have affected your family and when relatives were diagnosed can shed light on future health decisions. To track this information there are tools available today that can make compiling documents easier. The surgeon general offers an online resource called “My Family Health Portrait” that keeps your information organized and helps you assess your risk. While it may not be an enjoyable topic to discuss, noting at least three generations of your family’s health history can greatly benefit your understanding of your health in the future.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Molly McGuane is a Communications Specialist and writer for the Mesothelioma and Asbestos Awareness Center. The MAA Center is an organization passionate about supporting those with cancer and rare diseases and providing resources for patients and their families.


KEYWORDS: doctor visits, family history, disease risk