If you know which diseases hang from your family tree, you can reduce your risk. / Kari Lehr/Getty Images
You watch mom inject herself with insulin to keep her blood sugar down, take pills to manage her cholesteroland go to endless doctor appointments, and you wonder, “Will that be me in 10 or 20 years?”
The answer is: maybe. Family members share genes, as well as living habits, behaviors and environments, which together may affect the risk of developing similar health problems. But that may not have to be your future: If you know which diseases hang from your family tree, you can take steps to help prevent or reduce your risk.
Research has shown family medical history is an effective and accurate tool for assessing disease risk — one study suggests it works better than genetic testing for certain cancers. Gathering the information is important, and making sure it’s correct is even more so: A recent study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute showed that cancer patients’ accuracy in reporting the cancer diagnoses of their relatives was low to moderate. Some cancer screening and prevention recommendations are based on a person’s risk level, which is determined in part by family history, researchers say. Inaccurate histories may result in unnecessary screenings for some people and not enough for others. Here are some tips to help compile your family medical history:
Compile a list of your relatives. The best family health history includes three generations. Start with the most important first: your parents, siblings and your children. Next your grandparents, aunts and uncles, as well as your nieces, nephews and grandchildren; and then, finally, your first cousins.
Prep your questions. Ask about a range of health conditions (from heart disease and cancer to arthritis, dementia and any pregnancy complications) and the age when the problems started. You’ll want to ask about the cause and age of death for relatives. If possible, include any lifestyle information as well, such as diet and exercise, smoking and alcohol use.
Pick a good time to talk. Over the holidays or at any family gathering might be best, when everyone is together and can help one another remember.
Keep your records up to date. Store all your info online with the surgeon general’s My Family Health Portrait — you can update it as necessary and print it to share with your doctor or other family members. For more online tools and tips, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Public Health Genomics or the American Society of Human Genetics.