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Importance of knowing your family history

Family ties – how your family’s health history affects your health

Your family’s health can say a lot about your own health. As well as sharing some of the same genes as your blood relatives, similar environmental and lifestyle factors such as diet and exercise can also affect your health now and in the future. Knowing about your family’s health history may help you to stay healthy too.

About family history and your health

Conditions such as type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol levels and certain cancers can run in families. So family members who have or have had conditions like these are potential influences on your own health. To find out whether you might have a genetic tendency to any of these conditions, your doctor or healthcare team will ask you about the health of your family. This is called your family history.

Your family history can also shed light on the chances of your biological children developing certain conditions, or being born with inherited conditions such as sickle cell anaemia and cystic fibrosis. In conditions like these, your partner’s medical history plays a part too. If you and your partner’s family history is of concern, you may be offered genetic counselling and referred to a genetic counselling centre. Here you can get detailed information about the risks of developing certain conditions so you can make the best choices for you and for your family.

Do you know your family’s health history?

As you find out your family history:

  • Be sensitive. Not everyone wants to talk about their health or family health problems. Speak with blood-related family members at an appropriate time or occasion. And respect people’s privacy–assure your family members that the information is for you, your doctor and family members only and keep your promise.
  • Explain why you are asking about your family’s health. Talk about how sharing your family’s health challenges could affect your health and that of the family’s health too.
  • Try to include as many people as possible. From your parents and grandparents to siblings, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, cousins and your own children, starting a dialogue may spark interest in the family members you speak with about their own health.
  • When asking about specific health conditions, ask the approximate age that your family member first developed it. If a condition, such as heart disease or breast cancer started earlier than is most commonly seen in the general population, family members may have a genetic susceptibility to that condition.
  • If you can’t contact family members, let your health team know. But don’t worry if you don’t have the full story. Just as your family is continually changing, so is your family history. Try to see it as an ongoing project.

If you do find out anything about your family history that concerns you, see your GP.

How your family history is used

By tracking the health of your blood relatives, specialists may be able to identify some risk factors that could affect your current or future health. Risk factors raise your chances of developing certain conditions.

For example, some risk factors for heart disease are raised blood pressure and high cholesterol levels. Both of these are controlled by both genetic and environmental factors such as lifestyle, age and gender. If tests show that you have these risk factors, expect to be asked about your personal health choices – such as your diet, exercise, whether or not you smoke and stress levels. While a healthy lifestyle won’t erase a genetic risk, making simple changes to your lifestyle habits can often slash your risk factors substantially.

Your healthcare team can guide you in making informed choices for better health outcomes. This may include suggestions for ways you can reduce your risk factors, such as stopping smoking, eating a healthier diet, losing excess weight and doing more exercise. Your specific treatments may also be tailored according your known family history and risk factors to boost your chances of ongoing better health.

You may also be asked to have more tests, including special screening tests, further diagnostic tests or more frequent check-ups. This helps to pick up and treat problems early so that you have the best chance to control potential harmful conditions and increase your chances of good health.

The importance of knowing your family history

Knowing your potential risks of ill health can help you to make better decisions about prevention and screening. It can encourage your family to live healthier lives too. And in some cases, it can also allow you to get involved in research aimed at understanding, preventing and curing the particular condition.

Even if your family history suggests links with a disease or condition, you won’t necessarily go on to develop it. Likewise, not having any family history of a disorder could still mean that you can develop that disorder in the future. So focus on living the healthiest life you can, and attend all the medical and screening tests you are asked to go to. Think about what you can do to help future generations of your family and make yourself a starting point of your family’s health history, starting today.

Further information

Office of Population Health Genomics

Centre for Genetics Education


Genetics Home Reference. Why is it important to know my family medical history? [online] Bethseda, MD: US National Library of Medicine. Oct 2011 [Accessed 12 Oct 2011]
Available from:

NSW Government Health: Centre for Genetics Education. Family health history. [online] St Leonards, NSW: Centre for Genetics Education. [Last updated 31 May 2011, accessed 12 Oct 2011]
Available from:

Cancer Council Australia. Family history and cancer. [online] Surry Hills, NSW: Cancer Council. [Last uppdated 2 Sept 2011, accessed 12 Oct 2011]
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This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals. To the best of their knowledge it is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.

Bupa Australia Pty Ltd makes no warranties or representations regarding the completeness or accuracy of the information. Bupa Australia is not liable for any loss or damage you suffer arising out of the use of or reliance on the information. Except that which cannot be excluded by law. We recommend that you consult your doctor or other qualified health professional if you have questions or concerns about your health. For more details on how we produce our health content, visit the About our health information page.

Last published: 30 Oct 2011