When it comes to our physical appearance, there is a lot that we all inherit from our parents and family members. You may have an aquiline nose like your father or curly, black hair like your mother. But while these inherited traits are all visible, there are many other things you may share with your relatives which are both hidden and tricky to spot.
For instance, there is often no immediate way of learning that your great-grandparent has passed on an increased risk of arthritis, high blood pressure, or colon cancer. Therefore, it is extremely important to be aware of your family medical history. This way, you will be able to take the necessary steps to reduce the risk of health conditions or tackle hereditary illnesses in a timely fashion.
Here, we take a look at why it is crucial to be up-to-date with diseases running in your family tree and how to gather any relevant information.
Family medical history: why does it matter?
Leafing through your family tree’s medical history, as mentioned, can be an effective way to preserve your physical and mental well-being. This is because it can help predict whether you have a higher-than-usual possibility of suffering from a specific disorder, from diabetes and heart disease to stroke and certain types of cancer. In fact, these illnesses are usually the result of a complex combination of genetic factors, in-common lifestyle choices, and environmental components.
It’s worth mentioning that if, for example, your grandfather has developed asthma during his lifetime, this doesn’t necessarily mean you will end up with respiratory issues yourself. Likewise, if you belong to a family with no cancer history, this sadly doesn’t guarantee you won’t have to deal with this condition in the future either. However, keeping on top of your relatives’ medical records can provide you with a general overview of any recurring health issues. In turn, you can take measures to minimise your risk of developing those same health conditions down the line.
How to build up your family medical history
The more you know about your family history, the better. Therefore, it may be wise to start gathering information about your immediate family members, as they are related to you through blood.
To begin with, focus on your parents and siblings. You are likely to know whether they suffer from severe conditions already, but you can ask if they have less evident illnesses that you should be aware of as well. If the cause is genetic, nothing is too small or unimportant to be overlooked.
Moreover, your grandparents can be an excellent place to start too. Not only will you be able to obtain a full picture of their medical history, but they may also be able to recall whether past family members (who are no longer alive) had any concerning hereditary conditions.
As you investigate and collect the information you need, you may want to bear in mind a few aspects. Here is what else you should ask about:
- Cause of death – There is no hiding that this can be a delicate, emotional, and perhaps hurtful question – especially if a family member has only recently passed away. However, getting an insight into your relatives’ cause of death can help you identify possible clues about your family’s medical history.
- Age of onset – Another factor to take into consideration is the age of a relative when they were first diagnosed with a certain health condition. Once you have this information, it may be wise to tell your doctor. This way, they will be more likely to look out for certain symptoms, recognise the early onset of that specific illness, and perhaps give you the right GP prescription to slow it down.
- Environmental conditions – As well as sharing genes, habits, and behaviours, families often live in the same – or similar – environment. In this respect, the region you are originally from can have an impact on your health as well, so it is worth including in your medical history investigation.
- Ethnic background – Finally, you may also want to ask questions and research your family’s ethnic background. In fact, different ethnicities tend to have varying levels of risk when it comes to health conditions. For instance, individuals of Afro-Caribbean descent are more prone to developing cardiovascular diseases, whereas Caucasians have a higher incidence of cystic fibrosis.
What if I don’t know my relatives’ medical history?
There may be situations in which it is challenging to retrace your family medical records. This could be the case, for example, if you have been adopted, live overseas and rarely have the chance to chat with your relatives, or simply don’t feel comfortable having these kinds of conversations. Whatever the reason, you needn’t worry, as there are other strategies you can embrace to gather useful information and preserve your well-being.
Dr Harriet Leyland, from myGP, says that making healthy life choices is a first, crucial step towards proactively protecting your health. “Knowing your family medical history is extremely handy, there is no denying that,” she commented. “But there are other ways, regardless of whether you are aware of medical conditions that run in your family, that can help you keep certain conditions at bay.
“Following a healthy diet, exercising on a regular basis, and finding ways to manage your stress are all valuable tricks that will benefit your well-being. Also, make sure you get plenty of sleep and avoid misusing harmful substances, such as tobacco and alcohol. By doing so, you will be limiting the risk of running into illnesses.”
What’s more, it is always wise to attend available, recommended screenings. These can help you monitor your overall health and identify any problems at an earlier stage. Screenings tend to vary by age and gender and include skin exams, mammograms, colonoscopies, and depression tests. If you happen to receive an unwanted diagnosis, you should then be able to get preventive care. This can help you keep chronic conditions under control and prevent any future complications, such as heart attacks, strokes, and severe diabetes.
While there is no exact science, having a clear picture of your family’s medical history has an array of advantages. It may indicate what unusual symptoms to look out for and allow you to take swift action to minimise their impact.
By asking relatives about their health records, including questions on ethnic background and causes of death in the family, you can always be one step ahead of the game. But ultimately, the best remedy is to conduct a healthy lifestyle and book regular screenings to check that everything is as it should be.
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