Pass the Health History, Please
While you’re gathered with your family for the holidays this year, be sure to take the time to ask them about their health history.
Knowing the illnesses your parents, grandparents and other relatives have had can help you and your doctor work together so you can prevent them or get earlier treatment.
Click the link below for a printable list of questions to guide you through asking about your family's health history.
“Studies show that family health history is the best predictor of your chance of developing an illness,” says Kathryn Teng, MD, MetroHealth Director of Adult Health and Wellness.
Top 3 Reasons to Know Your Family Health History
- Knowing your health history can help doctors assess your risk of developing various illnesses such as diabetes, blood clotting disorders, heart disease and some forms of cancer. Once doctors know this risk, they can create a personalized health plan to reduce your odds of developing a particular condition.
For example, while having a parent or sibling with type 2 diabetes can increase your chance of developing the illness, eating high-fiber, low-fat foods and getting regular exercise can lower your odds.
“We want to motivate people to make lifestyle changes to prevent disease,” Dr. Teng continues. “It’s not all about prescribing medication.”
- Providing doctors with a thorough family health history also alerts them to what types of health screenings you may need ahead of schedule or on a more regular basis than standard guidelines suggest.
For example, if your father had colon cancer at age 40, your doctor will likely encourage you to have a colonoscopy before you turn 50, the generally recommended age for this type of screening.
Your doctor may also suggest that this screening occur more often than every 10 years, as current guidelines advise. The goal is to catch the disease early, when treatment is most effective.
- Finally, creating a health history not only benefits you, it also benefits your family. “Gathering and sharing health information with your family members can help them to more easily work with their doctors to live healthier lives,” says Dr. Teng.
Tips for Creating a Health History
The following can help you keep the health information gathering process simple.
Identify the Storyteller: “In most families, there is a person who is willing to share health information, or remembers the particular reason your grandmother was in the hospital at one point,” says Dr. Teng. Talking to this person first can help jumpstart your research.
Be Respectful: When collecting sensitive health information, be respectful of people’s boundaries. “Listening carefully rather than asking probing questions can signal respect and make the process go more smoothly,” explains Dr. Teng.
Take Detailed Notes: Be sure to write down detailed health information. “Get the name of the disease, who had it — whether it was your mother, father, aunt, uncle, maternal or paternal grandmother, a cousin on your mother’s side — and how old this person was when diagnosed,” says Dr. Teng.
Share the Information: Bring a copy of your health history to your annual preventive care visit with your doctor. Keep a copy for yourself and give copies to your family members.
Update Annually: Update your health history each year so your doctor remains aware of any new developments.
Questions to Keep in Mind
- Q: Do we have heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol or other health conditions that doctors commonly ask about in our family?
- Q: Have any of our relatives had cancer? If so, what type and how old were they when they were diagnosed?
- Q: Have you or any of our relatives had other serious diseases? Or a stroke?
- Q: How old were you when your conditions or diseases were diagnosed?
- Q: What do you know about our family’s ancestry? What countries did our ancestors come from?
- Q: How old were our relatives when they passed away? What were the causes?
Kathryn Teng, MD
Division Director of Internal Medicine