What is family health history?

Family health history is information about diseases that run in your family, as well as the eating habits, activities, and environments that your family shares. Knowing about the diseases that run in your family can help you make healthy choices.

Your family’s health is one part of the history of your family. While collecting your family health history, pay attention to events, stories, and experiences as well. Gathering your family history helps you share your family stories and health information with your family members and children.

“Family health history can be found in the choices you make, the stories your family shares, and the culture of your community. Discover it and improve your health!”

– Sharon F. Terry President & CEO Genetic Alliance

How can family health history affect my health?

You inherit many things from your parents and grandparents. They pass on culture and values through photos, recipes, stories, spiritual practices, and music. You also inherit how you look—for example, how tall you are and the color of your eyes. Small structures in cells called genes carry information for these characteristics and how your body works. Your genes were passed on to you from your parents.

Some genes can make it more likely that you will get certain diseases. When members of your family share health problems, you might be at risk for getting the same health problems in the future. This is because family members can have genes, lifestyle, and environment in common. However, you may be able to prevent illness by knowing your family health history and by making healthy choices.

Carlos’ story

Image introductionf1.jpg

Every man in my family has dropped dead before the age of 50—my father, my grandfather, and my uncles. I always assumed that I wouldn’t make it to 50.

A few years ago my cousin told me that he told his doctor about our family health history. His doctor did some tests and found out that my cousin was at risk for heart disease—maybe even a heart attack.

He put my cousin on medication to lower his cholesterol and told him to stop eating so many fried foods.

I talked to my doctor and got the same tests and advice. Last year, I threw the biggest 50th birthday party ever!

How can my choices affect my health?

Many things shape your health. Some things—such as your genes—are outside of your control. Other things—such as what you eat, if you smoke or exercise, and what you do for a living—can be influenced by the choices you make. To make healthy choices, you need to understand your current health, your risk for getting certain diseases, and your environment.

Family health history is the first step on the road to better health.

Kathleen’s story

Image introductionf2.jpg

photo by rick guidotti

I’ve always known that some of the relatives on my father’s side of the family died in early adulthood. At 23, I started to experience heart problems. I worried that I would die young like my aunt Kathleen, after whom I was named. Like many of my relatives who died, I was unusually tall, and everyone said I was Aunt Kathleen’s “spitting image.”

I was in medical school at the time and drew a family tree. When I shared my family health history with a few specialists, they did some tests and diagnosed me with Marfan syndrome. I contacted all of the members of the family who I feared were affected, and they were able to get lifesaving treatment.

Now I don’t live in fear that I might die suddenly like my aunt. I don’t worry for my daughter Marissa, who also has Marfan syndrome. We take the proper medication, get checkups regularly, and can get on with our lives. Our ancestors did not die in vain. Their story was heard and saved many.

To find out more about Marfan syndrome, visit www.marfan.org.