Talking About Family Health History

Why sharing family health history in the Black community is crucial, especially as chronic diseases are on the rise

It’s one of the first things we’re asked about when we go to the doctor: family health history. Yet it can be a challenge to open up about, even within our own families — and especially in the Black community.

“There's a stoic view toward health in the Black community, which can lead to the tendency to keep health issues and family medical history private," says Tochi Okwuosa, DO, a cardio-oncologist at RUSH. "Not sharing health problems, even with family, is about avoiding feeling judged or being seen as vulnerable. That's why it can be hard to share their family's health history.”

But with health conditions like heart disease, prostate cancer, colon cancer and breast cancer on the rise in the Black community, experts say it’s even more critical to have these conversations.

For example, high blood pressure is up two to three times higher in people who are Black. One in six Black men will develop prostate cancer in their lifetime and are twice as likely than white men to die from the disease. And another study showed Black women with breast cancer in Chicago died at a rate 62% greater than white women with breast cancer.

Carl Lambert, MD, a family medicine physician at RUSH, says these health issues can be linked to factors like where you live and how you work, eat, learn and play.

“It all plays a part in the development of chronic diseases and access to primary care or specialties,” Lambert says. “And if you don't have those things, then a lot of times these conditions fester and that's how it leads to the disproportionate rates of those conditions.”

Talking to your family about their health is an important first step in taking care of yourself and preventing these diseases. Our experts share more on why it’s important, along with tips for having that conversation.

Why your family health history is important

There’s a reason why your doctor asks about your family health history before you’re even diagnosed and tested.

“It’s important for me to understand a patient’s family health history before I start asking the questions about why they're coming to see me,” Okwuosa says. “I do this because all of that history plays into how I think about a patient’s health issue and symptoms, and then their care plan.”

If one first-degree female relative (sister, mother, daughter) has been diagnosed with breast cancer, for example, your risk is doubled. And if two first-degree relatives have been diagnosed, your risk is five times higher than the average.

“We know that if you catch a disease early enough, it changes outcomes, but there may not always be signs,” Lambert says. “So if your relative had a chronic condition — especially an early occurrence — there could be a higher risk for you, and we’ll start screening earlier for those conditions.”

Okwuosa emphasizes that knowing your family health history benefits both you and your family’s health.

“Having a conversation about health and your family’s history is not only empowering to you,” she says, “but for your family and the next generation.”

Tips for having the conversation

When you’re ready to talk with your family, Lambert suggests choosing a time when you would naturally be with them and check in, such as holidays, dinners and other get-togethers.

“Never come from a place of shame but from a place of curiosity because knowledge is power. Tell your family members that the more that you know about their health history, the more it helps you with your own health.”

Both doctors recommend starting the conversation first with your closest relatives, such as your parents, their siblings and then your own siblings.

After you’ve talked with your family, Lambert suggests setting up an appointment with a physician you trust.

“I think a lot of times patients who are Black will gravitate to a physician who is also Black, but it really could be any provider who you just feel safe and comfortable with,” he says. “So someone who has your health at their best interests and can help you navigate and dissect those important conversations about your family’s health.”

Other steps you can take

While you talk to your family about their health history, it’s also a good time to talk about ways to prevent diseases, especially those that you’re at risk for.

“You can also use that conversation to share health tips and hold each other accountable,” Lambert says. “We'd rather prevent conditions than have to deal with issues. So tell your family that it’s key to not wait until there's a problem — prevention is better.”

Here are tips to keep healthy:

  • Exercise daily. Try to get at least 30 to 40 minutes of exercise a day. This could be going for a walk, strength training or lifting weights.
  • Eat a healthy diet. Eat a diet that includes healthy fats like almonds, fish oil, avocados, lean proteins, such as chicken, turkey, salmon, white fish, cod, and fruits and vegetables. Also avoid frozen or processed foods.
  • Know your numbers. To make sure you’re in a healthy zone, ask your provider about your weight (or BMI), calcium score, cholesterol levels and blood pressure.
  • Quit smoking. Smoking increases your risk for chronic conditions. For help quitting, learn more about our Courage to Quit
  • Reduce stress. Try yoga, meditation or reading a book. Each of these activities helps to reduce stress.

Take charge of your health and make an appointment today.

Related Stories