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Family History

The Importance of Knowing Your Family History FAQ

What is family history?

Family health history refers to health information about you and your close relatives. Family health history is one of the most important risk factors for health problems like heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer. A risk factor is anything that increases your chance of getting a disease.

Why is knowing my family history important?

Family members share their genes, as well as their environment, lifestyles, and habits. A family health history helps identify people at increased risk for disease because it reflects both a person’s genes and other shared risk factors.

How can knowing my family health history help lower my risk of disease?

Having a family member with a disease suggests that you may have a higher chance of developing that disease than someone without a similar family history. It does not mean that you will definitely develop the disease. Genes are only one of many factors that contribute to disease. Other factors to consider include:

  • Lifestyle
  • Environment
  • Diet
  • Physical activity

How can I learn about my family health history?

The best way to learn about your family history is to ask questions, talk at family gatherings, draw a family tree and record health information. If possible, look at death certificates and family medical records.

To learn more about how to collect a family health history download the following resources:

What should I do with the information I collect?

First, share this information with your doctor. Second, share this information with your family (i.e. parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, children) so that they will have a family health history record. Third, remember to keep this information current and provide your family with an updated copy.

What will my doctor do with the information?

Your doctor will assess your risk of disease based on your family history and other risk factors. Your doctor may also recommend things you can do to help prevent disease, such as exercising more, changing your diet, or using screening tests to detect disease early. People who have a family history of a chronic disease may benefit the most from screening tests that look for risk factors or early signs of disease. It is important to follow your doctor's recommendations for screening tests.

Because both of my parents had heart disease, I know I have “bad” genes. Is there anything I can do to protect myself?

First of all, there are no “good” or “bad” genes. Most human diseases, especially common diseases such as heart disease, result from the interaction of genes with environmental and behavioral risk factors that can be changed. The best disease prevention strategy for anyone, especially for someone with a family history, includes reducing risky behaviors (such as smoking) and increasing healthy behaviors such as regular exercise.

My Father had diabetes. Does this mean I will get diabetes, too?

You can’t change your genes, but you can change behaviors that affect your health, such as smoking, inactivity and poor eating habits. People with family history of chronic disease may have the most to gain from making lifestyles changes. In many cases, making these changes can reduce your risk of disease even if the disease runs in your family.

How do I learn about my family history if I’m adopted?

Learning about your family health history may be difficult if you are adopted. Some adoption agencies collect medical information on birth relatives. This is becoming more common but is not routine. Laws concerning collection of information vary by state.

Contact the health and social service agency in your state for information about how to access medical and legal records on your biologic family members. The National Adoption Clearinghouse offers information on adoption and could be helpful if you decide to search for your birth parents.

If I don’t have a family history of disease, does that mean I am not at risk?

Even if you don’t have a history of a particular health problem in your family, you could still be as risk. This is because you may be unaware of disease in some family members, or you could have family members who died young, before they had a chance to develop chronic conditions. Your risk of developing a chronic disease is also influenced by many other factors, including your habits and personal health history.

If you have a strong family history of a genetic condition, schedule a visit at Cleveland Clinic's Center for Personalized Genetic Healthcare locally at 216.636.1768 or toll-free 800.998.4785.