Frequently Asked Questions
- What is family health history?
- Why is knowing my family health history important?
- My mother had breast cancer. Does this mean I will get cancer, too?
- Because both of my parents had heart disease, I know I have “bad” genes. Is there anything I can do to protect myself?
- How can knowing my family health history help lower my risk of disease?
- How can I learn about my family health history?
- How do I learn about my family health history if I'm adopted?
- What should I do with the information?
- If I don’t have a family health history of disease, does that mean I am not at risk?
- Where can I find more information about family health history?
Q: What is family health history?
A: 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.)
Q: Why is knowing my family health history important?
A: 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 these other shared risk factors.
Q: My mother had breast cancer. Does this mean I will get cancer, too?
A: 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 habits, such as diet and physical activity.
If you are at risk for breast cancer, consider following national guidelines for a healthy diet and regular exercise. It is also important to talk with your physician about your risk and follow recommendations for screening tests (such as mammograms) that may help to detect disease early, when it is most treatable.
Q: Because both of my parents had heart disease, I know I have “bad” genes. Is there anything I can do to protect myself?
A: 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 health history, includes reducing risky behaviors (such as smoking) and increasing healthy behaviors (such as regular exercise).
A: 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 a family health history of chronic disease may have the most to gain from making lifestyle changes. In many cases, making these changes can reduce your risk of disease even if the disease runs in your family.
Another change you can make is to participate in screening tests, such as mammograms and colorectal cancer screening, for early detection of disease. 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. Finding disease early, before symptoms appear, can mean better health in the long run.
A: The best way to learn about your family health 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.
A: Learning about your family health history may be hard 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 or legal records. The National Adoption Clearinghouse offers information on adoption and could be helpful if you decide to search for your birth parents. To learn more, visit http://www.childwelfare.gov/.
A: First, write down the information you collect about your family health history and share it with your doctor. Second, remember to keep your information updated and share it with your siblings and children. Third, pass it on to your children, so that they too will have a family health history record.
A: Even if you don’t have a history of a particular health problem in your family, you could still be at 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.
A: The following Web sites provide additional information on family history:
- CDC's Family Heath History Web site for the Public
- Mayo Clinic
- National Society for Genetic Counselors
- U.S. Surgeon General's Family Health History Initiative