Importance of Understanding Your Family Medical History

Organization: Live Health Topics:

Sharing Your Family Health History

Knowing your family history might be one of the strongest influences on understanding your risk of developing heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes. According to the Center for Disease Control, a study conducted showed that 96 percent of Americans believed that knowing their family history is important, but only one third have actually gathered their family history.

Your family health history can be helpful in determining which tests and screenings are best for you. Screenings are important, because the earlier a disease is caught the earlier it can be treated. Long Beach Memorial offers various comprehensive health screenings throughout the year including cancer detection for men and women and heart and vascular screenings among others.

Family history also is helpful in determining the kind of lifestyle and behaviors you should adopt. By increasing healthy behaviors such as a nutritious diet and exercise and decreasing unhealthy behaviors such as smoking, you can delay or in some cases prevent disease.

Not only is this helpful to adults, but children also can benefit from knowing their family history. For example it’s a common belief that Type 2 diabetes affects only adults, but more than 151,000 people below the age of 20 have Type 2 diabetes.

Having a close family member with a chronic disease increases your risk for developing the disease, but there is no such thing as “bad” or “good” genes. Having a chronic disease in your family history doesn’t guarantee your risk of developing the same disease. Chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer are caused by a combination of factors that include genes, behavior, lifestyle and environment. All of these factors can be shared by close family members.

In order for doctors to determine what preventative screenings and tests you should take, they must be able to view your family health history. Recording your family health history is simple. Start by writing it all down in place. Once you have gathered all of the necessary information, you can easily take it with you to medical appointments. Be sure to continuously update and organize the information.

There are several important elements you should gather when compiling your family health history:

  • Information from three generations of biological relatives.
  • The age they were at diagnosis.
  • The age and cause of death of diseased family members.
 
Warning signs when researching your family health history include:
  • A family member gets a disease earlier in life than expected. 
  • Several close family members have the same disease. 
  • The disease is usually uncommon for that gender. 
  • Certain combinations of disease in the family, such as breast and ovarian cancer or diabetes and heart disease.

It is especially important to know your family health history if you identify yourself as a minority. Some minorities still disproportionately experience preventable diseases, disability and death compared to non-minorities, says the CDC.

According to the Office of Minority Health, three of the largest minority groups have a higher rate for specific diseases.

Hispanics 

Some of the leading causes of illness and death among Hispanics include heart disease, cancer, unintentional injuries (accidents), stroke and diabetes. Some other health conditions and risk factors that significantly affect Hispanics are: asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, HIV/AIDS, obesity, suicide and liver disease.
  • Among Hispanics/Latinos, the diabetes death rate in 2000 was highest among Puerto Ricans (172 per 100,000), compared to Mexican Americans (122 per 100,000), and Cuban Americans (47 per 100,000).

African Americans 

In 2008, the death rate for African Americans was higher than Caucasians for heart diseases, stroke, cancer, asthma, influenza and pneumonia, diabetes and HIV/AIDS.
  • In 2008, African American women were 10 percent less likely to have been diagnosed with breast cancer; however, they were almost 40 percent more likely to die from breast cancer, as compared to non-Hispanic white women. 
  • In 2008, African American men were 1.4 times and 1.5 times, respectively, more likely to have new cases of lung and prostate cancer, as compared to non-Hispanic white men.

Asian Americans 

Asian Americans are most at risk for the following health conditions: cancer, heart disease, stroke, unintentional injuries (accidents) and diabetes. Asian Americans also have a high prevalence of the following conditions and risk factors: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, hepatitis B, HIV/AIDS, smoking, tuberculosis and liver disease.
  • Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders had the highest tuberculosis (TB) case rates (33 per 100,000) of any racial and ethnic population in 2001. 
  • The highest age-adjusted incidence rate of cervical cancer occurs among Vietnamese American women (43 per 100,000), almost five times higher than the rate among non-Hispanic white women (7.5 per 100,000).
 
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Surgeon General launched the “Surgeon General’s Family Health History Initiative,” a national public health campaign aimed at encouraging Americans to learn more about their family history. As part of the campaign, they created an online tool to help people track their family history. The tool is free and once you have filled out your family history, you can print out a chart detailing all of the information. This can be a useful tool when determining which tests and screenings are recommended for you.
 
Long Beach Memorial encourages you to gather your family health history now, so you can find out if you’re at risk or help prevent a condition from progressing. Knowing can help ensure a healthy future for you and your family.
 
The above family health history tips are adapted from The Center for Disease Control and Prevention.