Ask the Expert: Why Does Family History Matter for Your Personal Health?

Obesity, diabetes and hypertension – all ailments that disproportionately affect the black community – have strong family ties.

Ascension Michigan

Do you wish there was a quick way for you to help your doctor improve your family’s health? Collecting information about your family’s health history is an important step. “Family history is used to assess risk of future health disparities of the patient,” says Nicola Griffin, D.O., a board-certified family medicine physician with Ascension Medical Group. “Typically, the most important histories are those of family members including mother, father, siblings and children.” 

The National Institute of Health (NIH) says a family medical history is a record of health information about a person and his or her close relatives. A complete record includes information from three generations of relatives, including children, brothers and sisters, parents, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, grandparents, and cousins. “The age of onset of disease is also important to note when preparing answers to family history questions as this affects when or if we begin screening for certain disorders,” Dr. Griffin adds.  

Your family’s medical history matters for your personal health. A family medical history can identify people with a higher-than-usual chance of having common disorders, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, certain cancers and diabetes.

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“When certain medical conditions are present within a family, screening and monitoring can be done sooner or more frequently to prevent disease or to diagnose at an earlier stage of illness,” Dr. Griffin explains. “Many disease processes have genetic components that make family members more likely than the general public to have an occurrence.”

For example, Dr. Griffin points out that colon cancer screening begins earlier for people with a close relative who had a disease diagnoses at ages prior to 50. “Obesity, diabetes and hypertension have strong family ties due to both genetics and common environmental factors,” she adds. “Family history can also be very important to family planning with couples who are considering reproductive outcomes with disease processes.” 

The U.S. Surgeon General has created a computerized tool called “My Family Health Portrait” to help build a family medical history. Information you want to collect includes sex, date of birth, ethnicity, medical conditions, mental health conditions, including alcoholism or other substance abuse, pregnancy complications, including miscarriage, stillbirth, birth defects or infertility. For deceased relatives, the age at the time of death and cause of death is important to note.  

Let your family know why this information is important. “Be transparent with family members about why you are collecting histories and the implications for their personal health and the health of children or grandchildren,” Dr. Griffin says. “Medical histories are protected under HIPAA, as is other information collected at office visits, and will not be shared or used in other capacities.” 

Preparing your family’s medical history can help you and your doctor take action to improve your family’s health. “Even health conditions that are prevalent within families can be altered and even eliminated with changes in diet, proper exercise, improvements in technologies, changes in medications, and innovations in screening and detection,” Dr. Griffin says.  

Get more health information and find a doctor near you by visiting ascension.org/michigan or calling 866-501-DOCS (3627).

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