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Know Your Family Health History

September 5, 2023

A strand of human DNA on a blue background.

Whether you’re a new or existing patient, your doctor wants to get to know you — and your family’s health history.

Does anyone in the family smoke or have lung disease? What about diabetes or early-onset cancers? Is heart disease or high blood pressure anywhere in the family? Or maybe severe allergic reactions? What about alcohol, drug use, or the state of your family’s mental health?

All this information creates the tapestry of your personal genetic makeup, and it’s a big predictor of your overall health risk.    

Heredity Influences Health

When we ask you questions about your family’s health history, we’re searching for inherited illnesses among first- or second-degree relatives so we can stay ahead of potential health problems,” says Jason Ricks, MD, an internal medicine physician with Atlantic Health System.

“For example, if a patient’s father had colon cancer at age 50, that patient has a genetic predisposition to early-onset colon cancer. So, we’ll recommend screenings five years earlier at age 40 rather than at age 45, just to be safe. And we won’t use an at home screening test, we’ll do a full-on colonoscopy.”

“Or, if a patient’s mother had breast cancer, it nearly doubles her daughter’s risk. In this case, we would prescribe that patient genetic counseling to test for the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation. This allows the patient to make an informed decision based on the results.”

Three major benefits to knowing your family’s health history and sharing it with your doctor:

1. Identify Genetic Predisposition

Gathering and compiling your family health history in one place will help you better understand how predisposed you might be to developing certain diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, or certain types of cancer.

2. Make Informed Decisions

When you have insight into your inherited health risks, you can potentially change the trajectory of your family disease history. The information can influence decision-making about your health and lifestyle choices, as well as family planning and prenatal care.

3. Prioritize Early Detection and Prevention

Knowing whether or not you have a higher genetic risk for disease will encourage you to prioritize health screenings that can detect these diseases at their earliest stages when they’re most treatable.

The Benefits of Doing Your Homework

Collecting a family’s health history can be time consuming, but if family members communicate openly about their health — past and present — you’ll compile an accurate and detailed picture of health that will benefit your family for generations to come.

“Of course, family health history is not the only factor that influences your health,” says Dr. Ricks. “Lifestyle choices, the environment, and other considerations are also significant. But it is a major influencer of health, and when we have a comprehensive understanding of a patient’s family health history and risk level, we can offer more personalized care with tailored recommendations, treatments and preventive measures.”

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