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What you need to know about your family’s health history

If your parents or close relatives have chronic conditions, you’re going to want to tell your doctor. Here’s why.

When you see your doctor for your annual physical or annual wellness exam, they ask a lot of questions about you: What’s your diet like these days? How regularly do you exercise? Are you getting enough sleep? How are you handling stress?

Sometimes, your doctor may ask you whether you have family members with a history of certain illnesses as well.

It’s because many illnesses people develop can be attributed not only to age and lifestyle but also genetics, points out Janet O’Mahony, M.D. She’s an internal medicine specialist at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. “When I meet a new patient, I ask about family history, because it gives an idea of what conditions they are at risk for,” she explains. “I always want to know about siblings, parents and grandparents.”

Need to talk to a doctor about your family health history, but don’t have insurance? Get a health insurance plan, or call a licensed insurance agent at 1-844-211-7730 to discuss your options.

What is my family health history, exactly?

A family health history is a list of the diseases or health conditions that run in your family. You share genes with your other family members. These genes can influence your risk of certain diseases.

Most people have a family history of at least 1 chronic disease, such as cancer, heart disease or type 2 diabetes. “I want to know if there are any family members who have had a heart attack, stroke, stent placement or bypass surgery,” says Dr. O’Mahony. “I’m mostly concerned if this happened at a young age, which is under 55 for a male relative and under 65 for a female relative.” Since siblings are considered the closest relatives, a sibling who had a heart attack at a young age is particularly concerning, she adds.

The same holds true for cancer. “There are some cancers that run in families, and I’d be concerned about increased risk if a patient has a close family member with cancer before age 60,” explains Dr. O’Mahony. “That young age would be concerning for a genetic predisposition.” (A genetic predisposition means you are more likely to develop a certain disease based on your genes.)

How do I find out what my family health history is?

Sometimes, you know a lot about your family health history. Some families are open about their history of chronic conditions such as cancer or heart disease. If yours is, use the next family gathering as a time to chat about your health history.

But if your family is more tight-lipped, or not as close, you may have to do some research. You can look at death certificates to determine causes of death or check family medical records, if you have them available. You’ll want to try to get information about the following relatives:

  • Aunts and uncles
  • Children
  • Grandparents
  • Nieces and nephews
  • Parents
  • Siblings (including half-siblings)

If possible, try to get information on any major medical conditions, causes of death, age at disease diagnosis and death, and ethnic background.

Collect as much family health history as you can, and take it with you to your next visit with your primary care provider. If you’re under the age of 65, that’ll likely be at your annual physical. If you’re 65 or older, that’ll likely be at your annual wellness exam. Even if you don’t have a complete picture, share what you do know.

Need a doctor to share your health history with, but don’t want to pay out-of-pocket for a visit? Get help paying for doctor visits by finding a health insurance plan, or call a licensed insurance agent at 1-844-211-7730 to discuss your options.

How can my family health history help me?

Knowledge is power. You can’t change your family, but you can change unhealthy behaviors such as a poor diet, not exercising, and smoking or drinking too much. Research shows, for example, that if you have a family history of heart disease, you can reduce your risk of heart attack or stroke by as much as 40% or even 50% simply through some lifestyle changes.

And family health history, even if it’s incomplete, can help your doctor figure out which screening tests you need, and when you’ll need to start getting them. Case in point: “I would consider prescribing cholesterol-lowering ‘statin’ medications to lower the risk of heart disease in a person with a concerning family history,” says Dr. O’Mahony.

This is particularly important when it comes to certain cancers, such as breast cancer, ovarian cancer or colon cancer. Doctors may want to begin screening you earlier with mammograms for breast cancer and colonoscopies for colon cancer, notes Dr. O’Mahony.

There are also other cancers that run together in families, such as ovarian cancer and breast cancer. “If one family member had breast cancer but another one had ovarian cancer, there could be a single genetic mutation responsible,” points out Dr. O’Mahony. (A genetic mutation is a change in your DNA.) In that situation, your doctor will most likely refer you to a genetic counselor.

Here are some things doctors might look for, based on your family health history:

You have a family history of breast cancer and/or ovarian cancer. You’ll be screened for mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. Your doctor may also suggest testing using a multigene panel, which looks for changes in several genes at the same time, including BRCA1 and BRCA2.

You have a family history of prostate cancer. It’s thought that up to 60% of all prostate cancers are inherited, and 5% to 10% are caused by high-risk inherited genes. Additionally, 10% to 20% of all cancers are “familial,” meaning that a type of cancer occurs in multiple family members, but isn’t directly related to specific gene changes. Depending on your family history, your genetic counselor may recommend that you be tested for several different mutations, including BRCA1, BRCA2, ATM, CHEK2, PALB2, MLH1, MSH2, MSH6, and PMS2.

You have a family history of colon cancer. Your genetic counselor will most likely screen for Lynch syndrome, which raises your risk of not only colon cancer but, in women, uterine cancer as well. Lynch syndrome is the most common form of hereditary colorectal cancer. (“Colorectal” means cancers of the colon and rectum).

Even if you don’t have a genetic mutation, your doctor may want you to begin screening for conditions such as colon cancer or breast cancer earlier. Talk to them about what’s right for you.

Certain screenings or genetics tests may be covered by health insurance. Get more details now, or call a licensed insurance agent at 1-844-211-7730 to discuss your options.]


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Family health history: the basics.” May 5, 2023. Retrieved from

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Genetic testing for hereditary breast and ovarian cancer.” June 20, 2023. Retrieved from

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Lynch syndrome.” May 3, 2023. Retrieved from

Clinical Cardiology. “Genetics, its role in preventing the pandemic of coronary artery disease.” June 2021. Retrieved from

National Cancer Institute. “Genetics of prostate cancer (PDQ) — health professional version.” March 17, 2023. Retrieved from

Prostate Cancer Foundation. “Genetic testing for prostate cancer.” March 28, 2022. Retrieved from

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