Family Ties

Learn how your family's health history may offer clues to your own health
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You know you inherited your father's eyes and your grandmother's hair.

But did they also pass along health risks you might not know about?

If your relatives have certain health problems — such as heart disease or cancer — you could be at risk too, says Octavio Vega, MD, a primary care doctor at Rush University Medical Center.

Vega offers the following ideas on how to better understand your family’s health history and what it might mean for you.

Be a history detective.

Start by asking your relatives about any health problems in the family. Find out how old relatives were when they were diagnosed and if more than one relative had the same disease.

While it's essential to know about first-degree relatives (your mother, father, sibling or child), the diseases your grandparents, cousins and other relatives had can be important too.

"We tend to focus on first-degree relatives the most when looking at family history," Vega says. "But some diseases tend to skip a generation. And some are more prevalent in females or in males. All family health history is important."

Share your family history with your doctor.

"A complete family medical history helps me tailor a treatment plan to each patient's specific needs," Vega says.

For instance, if your father had colon cancer in his 40s, you might need earlier or more frequent screening tests than most people.

Or if your sister had a heart attack in her 50s, you might need to focus on lifestyle changes — such as eating a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising and not smoking — to curb your risk of early heart disease. You may also want to take medications to help lower your risk.

"Knowing they have a family history of a disease often gives people that extra push they need to take better care of themselves," Vega says.

Some diseases tend to skip a generation. And some are more prevalent in females or in males. All family health history is important.

Pay attention to ethnicity.

Some ethnic groups have a higher risk of certain diseases. For example, sickle cell disease and prostate cancer are more common in African Americans.

So if your ethnicity and your family history both put you at risk, it’s especially important to discuss with your doctor what you can do to minimize the risk.

Take control.

Even if a disease runs in your family, that doesn’t mean you'll get it too.

"Families share genetics and, in some cases, lifestyles," Vega notes. "We can't change the genetic component of your risk, but we can work together to change your lifestyle."

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