Family & Relationships

Holiday How-To: Learn About Your Family Health History

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Eating healthy, staying active and managing stress are all ways to take a proactive role in your health. But when it comes to wellness, there may also be forces at work beyond our daily activities: our genetics.

If a particular disease runs in your family, it may put you at risk for also developing that disease. One way to know more about those potential risks is to have an open talk with family members, and the holidays may be great time to get that conversation rolling.

Tony Vancauwelaert, M.D., a family medicine physician with Swedish Covenant Medical Group in Chicago, Illinois, says he regularly asks patients about their family history, and while they may know when a family member died, they’re less likely to know what diseases had set in and at what age—facts that may be relevant to their own health. “I think it could definitely be improved on,” he says. “It can be sensitive because it’s a private matter.”

Vancauwelaert shared the following tips on how to bring up topics surrounding family health history and what to ask over the holidays.

1. Bring it up gently.

Be respectful, polite and understanding when addressing family health history, says Vancauwelaert. “Say, ‘While we’re together, I’m trying to take better care of myself and it would be beneficial to me if I could get some details on our family’s health history. Is that something you would be willing to help me with?’” He adds that it might help people to let them know that if they prefer to speak in private or in a group, you’re open to either approach. He notes that you should find out the health history of relatives on both sides of your family and in a range, including parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews.

2. Guide the conversation.

Once your family members have agreed to talk there are a few diseases to hone in on since they can run in families, says Vancauwelaert. He says to ask about the following:

  • Cancer. Find out about any and all cancer history, says Vancauwelaert. “There are some instances where genetics can contribute to a person's risk of developing certain cancers. Breast cancer and colon cancer are two to ask about,” he says.
  • Cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks and strokes. “Cardiovascular disease runs in families,” says Vancauwelaert. “A lot of that comes back to blood pressure control, risk reduction and maintaining a healthy diet and level of activity,” he says. Abnormal heartbeats (arrhythmia) can also run in families, and should be asked about, says Vancauwelaert.
  • Diabetes. “There can be a genetic predisposition to diabetes, but it can also depend on lifestyle - people who become overweight and are very sedentary are at a higher risk,” he says. 
  • Neurological and/or mental illness. This is an area that can be difficult to discuss, but if the conversation is going well, says Vancauwelaert, it could be a good time to bring these diseases up, too. “If your family was open and conducive to discussing cancer, heart disease and diabetes, if they seem really forthright and charged, take the plunge and ask about things like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and mental illness, as they can also run in families,” he says.

In order to help individuals track their family health history, the Surgeon General created a tool called My Family Health Portrait

3. Share the information you find with your physician.

Learning about your family history is only the first step. By sharing it with your provider, he or she may be able to better help you manage your health, says Vancauwelaert. He says the provider can let a patient know if there are any health screenings they should schedule. Your doctor can also educate you on any preventive measures you can take that may decrease your chances of developing certain conditions, says Vancauwelaert. 

When it comes to discussing your family’s medical history, it may not be easy, but it may help you and other family members play a more active role in your health, says Vancauwelaert. “There’s no one size fits all for anybody. You need to know how to approach it with your family and hopefully it’ll be a two way street,” he says. “They’ll respect why you’re asking and you need to be respectful of how they choose to respond.”

To learn more about the importance of knowing your family's health history visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's online guide. 

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