If you’ve ever created a family tree, you know that your family is made up of people with all kinds of backgrounds. (Who knew that great-uncle Roger was a magician?) But that’s just one type of familial history. It’s even more important to learn your family health history, as it can help you understand what to expect from your own health.
Why is it important to know your family health history?
Some diseases, such as diabetes and colon cancer, can be passed down genetically. You’ll want to know how many relatives have had these conditions, as the more relatives with the same disease, the more likely it is to run in your family. Knowing if you’re at risk for a specific illness can help you determine ways to reduce the risk or even lessen the severity of the disease. For example, those with a strong family history of breast cancer may need earlier and more frequent mammograms, while those whose family history includes heart disease may need to make healthier lifestyle choices starting at a young age.
Which relatives should be included in a family medical history?
The goal is to develop a complete family medical history for three generations. Start with your grandparents on both sides, and include all of their children and grandchildren. This means that your family medical history should include your:
If you have children, nieces, or nephews, include their information as well. Keep in mind that you are focusing specifically on blood relatives, so include your half-siblings, but not stepparents or anyone who was adopted. They have their own genetic lines.
How to find out your family medical history
One of the easiest ways to get started is through the United States Surgeon General’s My Family Health Portrait. This online tool walks you through the process of creating and saving a record of your medical family tree. You can even print out a copy to share with your relatives or your healthcare provider. And it’s easy to update over time as you gain more information.
Actually gaining the information you need requires delicate conversations with your relatives, as you will need to discuss their private health data. Family gatherings, such as those held over the holidays, are the perfect time to start these conversations. Everyone is together, making it easier to fill in gaps in the data . . . which can be particularly useful if one or more relatives have passed on. And the relaxed, intimate nature of such a gathering can encourage people to open up.
Make it clear from the outset that you are simply trying to build a family history that can help everyone better protect their health. If your family happens to be into genealogy, or anyone has recently done a DNA test kit, that can be a great stepping stone for opening a dialogue.
What questions should I ask my family members?
You don’t need to ask very intrusive questions. Just start with the basics, including:
Be sure to ask about relatives who you don’t have access to, either because they live far away or have passed on. You never know who might be able to fill in some blanks in your family health history.
Some people feel comfortable discussing their medical history and may give you more specific details, such as symptoms they experienced or treatment methods that they used. Others may be more reticent and provide only the most general information. Either way, be sure to thank them sincerely for their help. Details can be helpful, but a “just the facts” approach is sufficient.
Remember, it’s perfectly okay if your family health history is incomplete. More information can help your doctor more precisely pinpoint areas to watch, but even a small amount of data can help patterns start to emerge.
What are some common conditions I should keep track of in my medical family tree?
In addition to rare inherited disorders such as cystic fibrosis, you will also want to look for patterns of more common illnesses. These include, but are not limited to:
Also look for patterns of brain disorders or mental health conditions, such as:
You may also want to see if other conditions run in your family, from hearing or vision loss to male pattern baldness. Other things to look for include a history of miscarriages or surgeries.
What if I was adopted?
People who were adopted often face a real struggle in learning their family medical history. However, you do have some options, according to Adoption.org. First, talk to your adoptive parents. In many cases, the adoptive parents receive a letter at the time of adoption that includes some non-identifying information about the birth parents, including their basic medical history.
You may also be able to find your birth parents. Initiating a search is a complicated decision that can have a major impact on your life and your mental health, so don’t undertake it lightly. But if you decide to do the search and are successful, you can then reach out to them with questions about your family medical history.
Your third alternative is to try to gain access to your adoption files. Depending on your state and the specific terms of your adoption, this could be relatively easy or extremely difficult. It may even involve petitioning the court to have your records unsealed for medical reasons. It’s a long shot, and these petitions are typically only granted if the adoptee has a current medical condition for which diagnosis or treatment could be aided by the information in the records. But it may be worth a try.
Your family medical history can give you valuable insights into potential future health conditions, but only regular healthcare can catch and treat any issues as they emerge. To learn how Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas can help you take better care of your health, give us a call today at 866-627-6705.