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Know Your Family’s Health History

A Family Health History can help you understand your risk for certain medical conditions, and ultimately help you optimize your health.

It’s no coincidence that Thanksgiving Day is also National Family Health History Day. The Surgeon General launched the day in 2004, recognizing that families often gather at the holiday, and that could be a good time to learn about health issues that may run in your family.

A family health history is also called a medical family tree. The idea is to create a written or visual record of illnesses and medical conditions that have affected your blood relatives — with a goal of understanding your risk for certain conditions and improving your health and the health of your family.

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Leslie Manace Brenman, MD, MPhil

Look InsideKP recently spoke with Leslie Manace Brenman, MD, MPhil, a clinical geneticist at Kaiser Permanente Oakland, about optimizing your health through knowing your family’s health history.

Why should someone put together a family health history?

A family health history remains one of the most powerful tools in modern medicine, even though it is our oldest, least expensive, and most low-tech product. It’s essentially a piece of paper with your family tree that outlines your relatives along with their medical conditions, ages of onset of those conditions, and age and cause of death for those who have passed away. This information is a powerful source of information to help guide your own best preventive and proactive medical care.

A family history of a disease may increase your risk of getting that disease, particularly the more relatives affected and the younger they were at diagnosis. If you know that you’re at risk, you can work with your physician to follow specific recommendations for lowering your risk.

For example, if you have a “strong” family history of a condition like type 2 diabetes — meaning that multiple close relatives are affected by this condition, especially if they were relatively young (less than 50 years) at diagnosis — that increases your chance of developing diabetes and influences the recommendations and screening tests your health providers will offer.

Or if your mother had a heart attack at 52, which is less usual for heart disease to affect a woman at this age, you may need to keep your cholesterol lower than the general population and be careful about blood pressure, which may require lifestyle changes or medication.

In some families, the proactive response to family history can be lifesaving.

How do you create one?

You can draw a medical family tree yourself or use the Surgeon General’s online tool, called “My Family Health Portrait”. The standard is a three-generation family tree including yourself, your parents, and their parents with all of the siblings and children for each of these generations

Try to get as many medical details as possible about each person, including the specific names of diseases or disorders, treatments and interventions, origin location of cancer, and the age the person was first diagnosed with a condition. Include information about intellectual disability, birth defects, and lifestyle habits such as smoking, alcohol, or drug use.

Most medical conditions are the result of a lot of components coming together. It is most often a combination of genetic traits, such as a predilection to put on weight, with lifestyle choices such as diet, exercise, smoking, or alcohol use, that ultimately lead to disease. With a family health history, we can look for patterns of conditions that might have an inherited component.

What should you do with the history you gather?

Share your family health history with your primary care physician. He or she should be able to help you with questions you might have about patterns in your history, and speak with you about possible preventive measures or screenings to optimize your health.

You can also share this information with your children and other relatives, so they too can live longer, healthier lives.

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