Understanding Your Health History

By Lindsey Johnson

Have you ever noticed that every time you go to the doctor you are required to fill out a long family history questionnaire? Many people don’t know the details of their family’s health but this can be incredibly useful for staying on top of your own health. 

This holiday season, take advantage of those family gatherings to collect the important information you need to keep you healthy. 


A family history of certain conditions increases the chance that you may be susceptible to some ailments, cancers or diseases.. In many cases, your healthcare team may want to start preventive screenings earlier or conduct additional testing to see if you are at risk for these conditions. For some conditions, earlier detection yields better outcomes. 


Alert relatives beforehand that you’ll be having this discussion. While some families share everything, many people don’t know the intricate medical histories of their family members. Volunteer to go first and lay out the types of information you want to gather. Being open and sharing your own history shows your family that this is important to you. Offer to be the family historian and record responses and distribute them to the other family members. Repeat the conversation each year and update the results with any changes. Immediate family members are the most critical but aunts, uncles and cousins are also helpful. 


You’ll want a history of certain major conditions but a listing of minor conditions is also useful. Here’s a list to get you started: 

Heart Disease (including high blood pressure, heart attacks, atherosclerosis, arrhythmias, stents and cardiac surgeries) 

Diabetes (both Type 1 and Type 2, as well as gestational diabetes and prediabetes) 


Breast or Ovarian Cancer (Some breast and ovarian cancers are due to a genetic mutation. If someone has these cancers, ask if they’ve had BRCA testing.) 

Colorectal Cancer or Polyps 

Skin Cancer 

Any Other Type of Cancer 

Sickle Cell Disease 

Kidney Disease 

Ask your family members for an approximate age at diagnosis as this helps providers determine if you are at increased risk. You’ll also want to piece together the health history of any deceased relatives, as well as the approximate age and cause of death. For example, a relative who died in their 30s from colorectal cancer would be relevant information. 


Share this information with your provider at your next appointment and bring forth any concerns you may have. In the case of certain cancers, your provider may recommend earlier or more frequent screenings, prophylactic medications or additional surveillance. If you have children, it will also be helpful for them to have a complete family history that may be relevant in their future. 

If you have an increased risk of certain conditions, your provider may recommend lifestyle interventions such as dietary changes, increased exercise, special sunscreen and others to mitigate risk. 


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