Compiling Your Family Medical History Could Save Your Life

Patient Expert
Thinkstock

Gatherings of extended family usually mean laughter and hugs, food and drink, games or sports, or simple relaxation and reminiscing. In short: fun.

But a large group of relations getting together — grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, kids — is also the perfect opportunity for you to do a little sleuthing into your family medical history: You can find out which relations had what serious health issues, and the outcome of those issues.

Why compile a family medical history?

Certain diseases have a genetic component: People sharing common genes (e.g., family members) also may share a propensity for being diagnosed with those diseases.

Knowing which hereditary illnesses and health issues affect your extended family allows you to deal with them early on. You might want to take preventive measures; e.g., if your dad died of a heart attack at an early age, you could choose a heart-healthy diet.

You also want to learn the symptoms for those illnesses, then be alert for those symptoms, both in yourself, and in other family members (including children, if appropriate). Early knowledge of a disease is often critical in treating it.

What common conditions are hereditary?

The National Institutes of Health identifies a number of common diseases with a genetic component, including the following:

  • Alcoholism
  • Breast, ovarian, skin, prostate, and colorectal cancer
  • Coronary heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Autism
  • Diabetes
  • Hypertension
  • Depression
  • Obesity
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Sickle cell disease
  • Parkinson’s disease

Breast cancer

Breast cancer has a known genetic component, the mutated BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. According to the National Cancer Institute, only about one percent of American women carry these gene mutations. But those who do are five to six times more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer by age 70 than women at normal risk.

Researchers also have identified other genes that increase breast cancer risk, though not as strongly as the BRCA gene mutations do. According to the American Cancer Society, your risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer is about twice as high as normal if your mother, a sister, or a daughter was diagnosed with breast cancer, especially before the age of 50.

Close vs. extended family

The closer the family connection, the higher your risk of an inherited disease. But concentrations of a particular illness in one family can raise a person’s risk for that illness, even if those affected aren’t immediate family members.

Breastcancer.org notes, for instance, that three or more women with breast and/or ovarian cancer in a family raise all family members’ risk for breast cancer, including men. That’s why it’s important to develop an extended family medical history. And holiday time, when families tend to gather in large groups, is a great time to start.

Getting started

The U.S. Surgeon General provides a handy online tool for compiling family medical history, My Family Health Portrait. In addition, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offers advice on what you need to do to get started.

Armed with this information, you can develop a family medical history that might someday play a role in saving your life — and the lives of those you love.

See More Helpful Articles:

A Guide to Breast Cancer Symptoms

BRCA Genetic Testing: Yes or No?

Is Breast Cancer Hereditary?

Young Women and Breast Cancer: Genetic Testing on the Upswing

Genetic Risk, Fine-Tuned: Researchers Offer New Data


Breast cancer survivor and award-winning author PJ Hamel, a long-time contributor to the HealthCentral community, counsels women with breast cancer through the volunteer program at her local hospital. She founded and manages a large and active online survivor support network.