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Family medical history: Why discussing health with your family is so important

November 19, 2021
Family talking over thanksgiving dinner

For many families, the holiday season is an opportunity for conversation. Getting together around the dinner table can be a perfect time to talk about your family’s health history. In fact, the surgeon general declares Thanksgiving to be National Family History Day for this very reason.

Family history is one of the main ways of knowing your health risks.

What is a family health history?

A family health history is a comprehensive look at health conditions your family may have experienced over the generations.

It can look a lot like a traditional family tree but includes health information for everyone.

Why should you get your family medical history?

Armed with information about your family’s health history, you and your doctor can take proactive steps to keep you healthy.

“I encourage everyone over Thanksgiving and at other times during the holiday season to talk about, and to write down, the health problems that seem to run in their family,” said Dr. Booker Bush of Baystate High Street Health Center.

Both common (like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes) and rare diseases (like cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia) run in families.

This information can help your doctor understand your risk factors for these health conditions.

Why would a doctor ask about your family medical history?

Being prepared with a family health history on your first-time visit with any doctor is helpful to them.

“There is always a lot to discuss when I meet with a patient, and the more organized information he or she has ready to offer me at the time of our meeting, the more productive our session will be,” Dr. Bush said

Compiling family health information can help even if you’ve been seeing your primary care doctor for a long time.

“There are many issues your healthcare provider will want to discuss with you, simply because of your age. As we get older, the risk for different medical conditions grows. However, when there is a history of certain conditions in your family, we will make different recommendations for testing and our diagnostic decisions will change based on medical issues in your family,” said Dr. Bush.

Getting the entire family history is important, because it tells your doctor about where you came from.

“Every patient has their own story to tell and knowing about their family makes it even more interesting. For preventive care, it is important to know about diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and cancer histories. For example, for women, a history of breast cancer changes when I will recommend beginning screening mammography. When a person has a family history of colon cancer, I may recommend an earlier age for colonoscopy. I also want to learn if there have been problems with blood clots in the family. Mental health issues also run in families, as well as substance abuse,” Dr. Bush said.

The information you give them could prompt your doctor to recommend:

The approach may depend on your doctor. For example, Dr. Bush doesn't recommend genetic testing unless there is a family member with the genetic mutation for breast cancer. 

Tips for talking about medical information with your family

The benefits of learning about your family's health history are certainly clear. Still, the conversation isn't always easy.

Here are five tips for getting your family talking:

1. Prepare a list ahead of time

Start by making a list of the blood relatives you need to include in your family health tree.

This list should include:

  • Your parents
  • Brothers and sisters (and half-siblings)
  • Children
  • Grandparents
  • Uncles and aunts
  • Nieces and nephews.

You can also expand the list to include great uncles and aunts and cousins.

2. Give your family a heads up

Make sure you don't ambush your family members with a health talk.

Before the holiday, let your relatives know that you’d like to have a conversation about health history. Ask their permission. An email, text, or phone call ahead of time will give your family time to prepare.

Explain that learning more about family health history can help save lives.

"Some people may feel uncomfortable, and that feeling should be respected," Dr. Bush said.

3. Come up with questions

Know in advance what you’d like to ask. To start, you can follow this list recommended by the surgeon general:

  • Do you have any chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, high blood pressure or diabetes?
  • Have you had any other serious illnesses, such as cancer or stroke?
  • How old were you when you developed these illnesses?
  • Have you or your partner had any difficulties with pregnancies, such as miscarriages?
  • What medications are you currently taking?

Also, ask questions about other relatives, both living and deceased, such as:

  • What is our family’s ancestry – what country did they come from?
  • Has anyone in the family had learning or developmental disabilities?
  • What illnesses did your late grandparents have?

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) also recommends learning more about how your relatives have passed on, including information on causes of death, age at disease diagnosis, age at death, and ethnic background.

4. Start the conversation

To help break the ice, begin by sharing your own health history.

When you’re ready to start asking questions, ask one question at a time.

Be sensitive to your relatives’ feelings and understand that there might be some information they aren’t comfortable sharing.

5. Take notes

During your family conversation, be sure to have a notepad or tablet on hand to record information.

Let your family know that you will share your notes with them.

How to create your family health tree

Because family health history is such a powerful screening tool, the Surgeon General has created an online tool to help create a sophisticated portrait of their family’s health history.

Visit the My Family Health Portrait site to enter your information, learn about health risks, and print and share with your family and health care provider.

It can take an average of 15-20 minutes to fill out your family health tree on the site. If you have a larger family, you may want to set aside more time.

The information you fill out is kept private and is not kept as a government record.

“I used the tool, and it took me a lot of time to complete, but the good thing is that it will lead me to discuss more information with my own health care provider than if I hadn’t prepared one. For instance, I forgot that my father had a history of blood clotting, and that’s important to know, especially if I have certain symptoms,” Dr. Bush said.

Family health history example

If you’re not comfortable using the online tool, you can also create a family health history tree by writing the information out by hand.

Here is a template you can use as a starting point.

What if you have an incomplete medical history tree?

Some relatives may not be willing to share certain information about their health.

That’s okay! Healthcare can be a sensitive topic.

Even a little bit of information can be helpful to your doctor.

What if you’re adopted?

If you’re in contact with your birth parents, the CDC recommends reaching out to them for family history information.

If not, some adoption agencies keep this information on file. Your state’s health and social service agency may also be able to help you access records.

Act on your family health history results

Once you have information about your family’s health history, make sure you do something with that information!

If you find a history of a certain health condition or disease, talk to your primary care provider to learn more about preventative care and screening.

And make sure you keep in touch with your relatives.

“Creating a family history isn’t something that you do, then put away and forget about. You should remember to always keep your family history up-to-date,” Dr. Bush said.

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