Healthy living

Your family health history

Your family health history is important to your health. Families can share many things that can increase your risk of getting a health condition, including:

  • genes 
  • lifestyle habits (for example, poor diet, lack of exercise or smoking).

Many health conditions develop due to a combination of factors including lifestyle choices and environmental factors, such as sun exposure. This means that in most cases family history alone is not enough to cause a condition to develop.

Knowing that some conditions such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some cancers tend to ‘run in the family’ can be a sign you are at increased risk.

If you know of these conditions you should let your doctor know so that they can help you identify things you can do to reduce your chance of also developing the condition.

They may refer you to Genetic Services of WA where you can have tests to confirm your genetic risk and receive genetic counselling.

You can’t change your genes, but if you are aware of your family’s health history, you can reduce your risk of getting some conditions by:

  • making healthy lifestyle changes
  • having regular check-ups and getting healthcare advice from your doctor.

Health conditions that run in families

Common health conditions that you may find within your family’s health history include:

Know your family’s health history

It is recommended that you are aware of your family health history. A family health history can help identify if you are at higher risk for certain conditions because of your shared genes and behaviours.

If you are at higher risk, your doctor can suggest lifestyle changes that may slow or stop the development of many conditions. The best way to build your family health history is to talk to relatives about their health information.

While there may be a high incidence of a certain condition in your family it does not mean that you will definitely develop that condition.

How to record your family health history

You can record your family health history on a Family Health Tree worksheet (PDF 109KB) like in the example below.

An example of what a family health tree can look like

Who should I collect information from?

You only need to collect health information from people that are biologically related to you (blood relations). You should try to get as much information as you can from:

  • your parents, any brothers and sisters and your children. These are your first degree relatives.
  • your grandparents or grandchildren, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, and half-siblings (brothers or sisters with whom you only share one genetic parent). These are your second degree relatives.
  • your cousins. These are your third degree relatives.

What information should I collect?

Try to collect information about:

  • any major health conditions in your family
  • the age a person was diagnosed with a condition and, if they have since died, their age at death
  • their ethnic or cultural background (some ethnic groups are at greater risk of developing certain conditions)
  • general lifestyle information, such as whether the person smoked or worked with harmful substances, for example asbestos.

You should also include information about any close relatives who have had children together. For example, if first cousins have had children together.

If it is difficult to get information from your family

You may find it hard to contact all members of your family as it is easy to lose touch with some relatives and others may not wish to discuss health matters. Be sensitive with your questions and respect your relative’s decision if they do not want to talk about it.

If you are finding it hard to obtain information about your family’s health, consider going to 1 or 2 relatives you feel comfortable with who may be able to give you information about other relatives. If contacting even a few of your relatives is a problem, just recording information about yourself will benefit future generations of your family.

If you are adopted

Getting information about your family health history can be difficult if you are adopted or do not know certain members of your family.

If you find it difficult to collect information on your family think about starting your own health history for your children and grandchildren.

Update your family health history regularly

Once you have collected your family health history, keep it in a safe place. If you update your health history regularly and keep it in a safe place, your children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will know their family health history and may be able to reduce their own risk of disease.

You could even create your own ‘family health history day’ where you update your information and discuss it with your family. You may also like to give copies to other relatives so that they are aware of any conditions that run in the family.

Of course, if there is anything in your family history that causes you concern, talk to your doctor.

Am I at risk?

Although every family is different, some factors that may mean that your family is at higher risk of developing certain conditions include:

  • several closely related individuals with the same or related health conditions, for example:
    • breast and ovarian cancer
    • bowel/colon and endometrial (uterine) cancer
    • diabetes, heart disease or high blood pressure
  • a common health condition that develops at an early age, for example:
    • breast or ovarian cancer before 50
    • bowel/colon cancer before 55
    • prostate cancer or heart disease before 60
  • the sudden death of someone who appeared healthy
  • more than 3 pregnancy losses (miscarriages) or stillbirths to a couple or a woman
  • health conditions in children of parents who are closely related, for example second cousins or closer.

Talk to your doctor if you notice any of these situations in your family health history. If they think you or your family members may be at increased risk you can be referred to Genetics Services of WA to have a genetic test. You may be advised to take steps to reduce your risk, such as making healthy lifestyle changes, or undergo regular surveillance to identify the early stages of disease.

Remember that while many conditions can seem to ‘run in the family’, they often happen by chance meaning that whether or not you have a family history of a condition, you should still take steps to live a healthy lifestyle.

If there is a strong family history of a health condition

If you have a family history of a certain condition, such as heart disease, you may be more likely to develop that condition than people who don’t have the same family history. However this does not meant that you will definitely develop the condition.

If you do have a strong family health history of a specific condition remember to let your doctor know so that they can work with you to minimise your risk

Protecting your family if you are at risk

The development of many conditions is influenced by genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors. While you can’t change your genes, you can work with your doctor to reduce your risk of developing many conditions by choosing a healthy lifestyle and having regular surveillance.

Lifestyle changes include quitting smoking, becoming more active and eating a healthy diet. If you have a personal or family health history of a condition, making healthy changes can reduce your risk of developing that condition.

Letting your doctor know about conditions that run in your family helps them to consider what check-ups and support you need to prevent a condition from developing or to detect it early.

If you don’t have a family health history for a health condition

Even if you don’t have a family health history for a certain condition, you could still be at risk. This is because:

  • you may not know that some family members have the condition
  • family members may have died at a young age before symptoms developed
  • many health conditions will develop by chance even if you don’t have a family health history.

The development of many conditions is also related to lifestyle or environmental factors. Even if you think that you have ‘good genes’, the best way to prevent a health condition developing is to have a healthy lifestyle.

More information

For more information about how to collect your family health history, please contact the Office of Population Health Genomics:

If you are concerned about a health condition that may run in your family, talk to your GP or contact Genetic Services of Western Australia on 9340 1525.

If you have a genetic condition in your family and you need support or would like to contact others with the condition, contact the Genetic and Rare Disease Network (GaRDN) (external site).

Remember

  • Knowing your family health history helps maintain and protect your health.
  • If a health condition runs in your family, this can be a sign you are at increased risk.
  • Even if you do not have a clear family history of a condition you could still be at risk.

Acknowledgement: This development of this information was support by the Australian Better Health Initiative: A joint Australian, State and Territory government initiative.


Acknowledgements
Office of Population Health Genomics

This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.

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