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Why Your Family History Is So Important to Your Doctor

By Cara Murez HealthDay Reporter

SATURDAY, June 24, 2023 (HealthDay News) -- Your family medical history may reveal some important details about your health, making it vital information to share with your medical provider.

It’s helpful to gather what you can before your next visit with your primary care physician.

“Knowing your family history can be helpful in identifying if you’re at higher risk for certain chronic diseases, mental health conditions or cancers,” said Dr. Saundra Nguyen, an assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

“For example, someone with a strong family history of colon cancer may be recommended for a colonoscopy earlier than the general population, or we may screen for diabetes in someone with a family history of diabetes," Nguyen said in a college news release. "We can also identify early warning signs of disease and work on preventive lifestyle measures.”

It's recommended that you gather information on family history of chronic diseases, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. Also important are details about family members with cancer, mental health conditions, dementia and genetic disorders. Try to find out the age of diagnosis, when possible.

“If a lot of family members are developing a cancer at age 40, this could be an indication of an inheritable risk factor versus if people develop cancer in their 70s and 80s, when cancer is more common due to age,” Nguyen said.

You don’t need to go too far back in time, she said. Focus on first- and second-degree relatives, including parents, siblings, half-siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles.

Be sensitive with how much a family member is willing to share. This can vary depending on cultural and generational norms.

“Nobody has to share their personal health information if they don’t want to, but I encourage patients to ask different family members and explain how this information can be helpful in being more informed about their health and making health decisions,” Nguyen said. “Talking to first-degree relatives like parents and siblings can be a good starting point.”

If you were adopted, you may be able to access family history through adoption records.

Online resources can help keep track of the information once you have it. This includes My Family Health Portrait, a tool developed by the National Human Genome Research Institute and the U.S. Surgeon General.

More information

The U.S. National Library of Medicine has more on diseases that run in the family.

SOURCE: Baylor College of Medicine, news release, June 20, 2023

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