It may not be as thrilling as delving into your ancestry, but knowing your family’s medical tree could prove vital in protecting your health.
You may be aware of your family tree. You may even have spent time researching your ancestors, and found an interesting story lurking in your past. But do you know the stories behind your family’s medical history?
Know your family history
Your family medical tree may also be referred to as your family’s medical history, or health history. In short, it’s a record of both your, and your blood relatives’ health. It includes details of your parents, siblings, children, and other blood relatives such as grandparents, and aunts and uncles.
Being aware of your family’s medical history is important because some diseases and illnesses can run in the family, which means your risk for that condition is also increased. Knowing the types of health issues your relatives have dealt with, can help determine your overall risk for developing them.
This in turn helps you and your doctor stay in control of your health by making lifestyle changes, undergoing screening, or even taking medication that will reduce your risk of developing the same condition.
All about familial risk
Diseases that can run in families are said to carry a familial risk. That means there is a regular pattern when it comes to your family members having developed certain health conditions. These include:
- Heart disease (including high blood pressure and cholesterol)
- Type 2 diabetes
- Some cancers, such as breast/ovarian and colorectal (bowel)
Other conditions that run in families include:
- Birth defects such as spina bifida or cleft lip
- Genetic conditions such as cystic fibrosis or haemophilia
- Mental illness—including dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
It’s important to understand that, just because someone in your family developed one of the above conditions, doesn’t mean you will. It simply means your risk is higher than someone who doesn’t have relatives with those conditions.
More than one risk factor
Chronic disease involves many risk factors—some you can’t control and some you can. Those you can’t control are called non-modifiable risk factors, such as your ethnicity, age, gender, and family history.
There are also ones you can control. These are called lifestyle risk factors and include:
- Smoking—smoking has been linked to a number of health conditions, and is the single biggest risk factor for chronic illness.
- Weight—carrying too much weight puts you at higher risk of developing a number of health problems.
- Diet—a diet high in fat, salt and sugar, and low in fruits and vegetables increases your risk of poor health.
- Exercise—not getting enough regular exercise is also bad for your health.
- Stress—if you experience high levels of stress you may be at increased risk for some diseases.
- Alcohol—heavy alcohol consumption can contribute to your risk of a number of health conditions.
It’s important to understand that some health conditions are risk factors for other ones. For example, if you have high blood pressure or high cholesterol, you are at greater risk of developing heart disease.
Work with your doctor
Of course, it’s wise to be concerned about your risk factors for chronic disease and illness. However, you don’t need to panic. Being aware of your family history means that you are in a better position to avoid, or at least delay the development of these diseases.
An important aspect of managing your overall health is to have a good relationship with your doctor. If there are diseases or conditions that run in your family, make sure you speak to your doctor and try to give them as much detail as you can.
Information that will help your doctor work with you to manage your health includes knowing what types of diseases your family members have had, who had them, how old they were when they were diagnosed, and what the outcome was.
Once your doctor has this information, they will be able to devise a plan of action for you. This may include regular screening, taking medication, or taking steps to change any lifestyle risk factors you may have.
Just as you can’t choose your family, you can’t choose your family medical tree either. However, you can choose to take control of your health by understanding your risk for developing diseases, and then taking steps to reduce that risk as best as you can.