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.
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.
As you find out your family history:
If you do find out anything about your family history that concerns you, see your GP.
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.
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.
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: http://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/handbook/inheritance/familyhistory
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: http://www.genetics.edu.au/
Cancer Council Australia. Family history and cancer. [online] Surry Hills, NSW: Cancer Council. [Last uppdated 2 Sept 2011, accessed 12 Oct 2011]
Available from: http://www.cancer.org.au/aboutcancer/familycancers/familyhistory.htm
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.
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Last published: 30 Oct 2011