6 Things To Know About Your Family Health History

Learning your family's full medical history can be your wellness secret weapon.

When healthcare providers ask you questions about your family members' health, they seek clues about how they should treat you.

For many chronic conditions, like heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and some mental health disorders, family history is a risk factor. So, Health asked six healthcare providers about what they look for when examining your family history.

Here, an OB-GYN, dermatologist, cardiologist, internist, osteoporosis specialist, and gastroenterologist weigh in on what you can do if you discover you have a family history of any of the following diseases. 

OB-GYN: Deborah Lindner, MD

Healthcare provider: Deborah Lindner, MD, board-certified OB-GYN specializing in venous and lymphatic disease

Your family history may contribute to your risk of developing breast, ovarian, and uterine cancer.

For example, in the United States, women have a 12% risk of developing breast cancer in their lifetime. But that risk may be nearly 11 times higher if you have a family history of the disease.

A BRCA gene mutation increases your risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer. Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly one in 500 women have a mutation in either their BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene in the United States. Having a parent with a BRCA gene mutation gives you a 50% risk of also having that mutation. 

According to the CDC, 50 out of 100 women with a BRCA gene mutation will develop breast cancer before 70. And 30 out of 100 women with a BRCA gene mutation will develop ovarian cancer before 70. In contrast, among the general population, 7 out of 100 and 1 out of 100 women will develop breast or ovarian cancer, respectively.

Colon, pancreatic, and prostate cancer can also be genetically linked to breast and some gynecologic cancers.

What you can do: Start getting screening mammograms 10 years earlier than the youngest age at which a first-degree relative was diagnosed. Talk to a genetic counselor about whether you should consider genetic testing. Also, some evidence suggests that exercising and limiting your alcohol intake can lower your likelihood of breast cancer.

Breast Cancer Screening Guidelines

Breast Cancer Screening Guidelines: As of May 2023, the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends that cisgender women and people assigned female at birth get mammograms every two years beginning at age 40. This is 10 years earlier than the current guidelines. More research is needed on whether people with dense breasts should have additional screenings as well as the potential benefits and risks of screening people older than 75.

Osteoporosis Specialist: Alan Malabanan, MD

Healthcare provider: Alan Malabanan, MD, clinical associate professor of endocrinology, diabetes, nutrition, and weight management at Boston University

Your family history may reveal your likelihood of developing osteoporosis and hip fractures. 

Bone density is mainly genetic, so if your family has "weak" bones, you may, too. If either of your parents previously had a hip fracture, your risk of having osteoporosis may increase.

What you can do: Ensure you're consuming enough calcium and vitamin D. Maintain a strength-training regimen, which bolsters bones and helps you avoid falling. All women 65 or older should have a bone density screening. But you may want to go earlier, at menopause, if you're in a high-risk family.

Gastroenterologist: Robynne Chutkan, MD

Healthcare provider: Robynne Chutkan, MD, gastroenterologist founder of the Digestive Center for Wellness in Washington

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)—which includes Crohn's and ulcerative colitis—colon polyps, and colorectal cancer may run in families. For instance, the risk of colorectal cancer increases by up to 20-fold for individuals with a family history.

What you can do: Take digestive symptoms seriously and bring them up with a healthcare provider. For instance, let a healthcare provider know if you notice blood in your stool.

The CDC recommends that all adults 45 and older receive regular screenings for colorectal cancer. You should receive screenings earlier than 45 if you have an immediate family member who was previously diagnosed with colorectal cancer. The CDC advises talking to a healthcare provider about when to start regular screenings.

Beyond that, keep your gut healthy by eating more plants, boosting your fiber intake, limiting red meat, and exercising.

Internist: Jeremy Fine, MD

Healthcare provider: Jeremy Fine, MD, internist based in Los Angeles

Chronic conditions that include family history as a risk factor include:

  • Cancer 
  • Heart disease
  • Type 2 diabetes

For example, if you have a parent or sibling with diabetes, your odds of having the condition increase.

What you can do: Get your blood glucose levels checked regularly. The CDC recommends getting a baseline A1C test at 45. If you're younger than 45, overweight, and have risk factors for prediabetes or type 2 diabetes, the CDC advises getting regular A1C tests. 

For example, if your baseline A1C test results are normal but you have risk factors, the CDC recommends getting an A1C test every three years. Or if your results indicate prediabetes, a healthcare provider may recommend an A1C test every one to two years.

Additionally, exercising and eating a healthy plant-based diet are key to reducing your risk of cancer, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.

Cardiologist: Karol Watson, MD

Healthcare provider: Karol Watson, MD, cardiologist and professor of medicine and cardiology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California in Los Angeles

Your family history may contribute to your risk of stroke or heart attack. In particular, that risk increases if a relative dies prematurely, before age 65 for women and before 55 for men, of heart disease.

Also, knowing what conditions may run in your family is essential. For example, there's a difference between a heart attack and sudden cardiac death. 

High blood pressure and high cholesterol, which are both heart disease risk factors, also tend to run in families.

What you can do: Keep tabs on your cholesterol and blood pressure. Also, lifestyle factors greatly influence heart health. So, try some of the following:

  • Reduce your added sugar intake
  • Follow a whole foods, plant-based diet
  • Keep moving throughout the day
  • Avoid all cigarette smoke
  • If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation

Dermatologist: Jessie Cheung, MD

Healthcare provider: Jessie Cheung, MD, board-certified dermatologist based in Illinois and New York 

Skin cancer of any type can run in families. If you have a first-degree relative with melanoma, you are 1.7 times more likely than average to develop that cancer. Also, a family history of skin cancer increases your risk of basal cell carcinoma.

What you can do: As of November 2022, there's no clear evidence to support regular skin exams. According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, it's crucial to regularly perform skin checks and consult your dermatologist if you notice any changes. Also, be vigilant about sun safety by wearing broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 daily.

A Quick Review

Keep in mind: If your relative has a particular disease, that doesn't mean you'll also definitely develop the disease. But knowing your family's health history can be a meaningful tool to help reduce your risk of some diseases.

Your family has a similar genetic makeup. Knowing how certain diseases affect your parents, siblings, children, and extended family members can be helpful. Those details can help healthcare providers make informed decisions about your health and how often to screen you for specific illnesses.

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Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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