Image for family history articleSometimes it really is all in the genes. Knowing your family's medical history can alert you to potential problems and help you take precautionary measures. As researchers discover new genetic markers, certain individuals and families may be identified as having a higher than average risk for a variety of diseases. When it comes to your health, the apple does not fall far from the tree. Knowing your family medical history may save your life or the lives of your children and grandchildren.

Certain types of cancers run in families. Sometimes it's because the family members have common risk factors, but in some cases it's because the family members share a genetic trait that is being passed down through the generations. Some cancers that are linked to family history include breast, ovarian, prostate, and colon cancer.

Conditions like heart disease, stroke, asthma, diabetes, arthritis, and Alzheimer's also tend to run in families. You will not necessarily be affected just because someone else in your family was, but under certain circumstances your risk might be increased. Inherited risk involves complex interactions among several genes and your environment. Your behaviors—smoking, weight management, dealing with stress, heavy drinking, exposure to toxins—influence whether you'll get a disease.

Your family medical history is valuable to you and to future generations of your family. Medical histories for your first-degree relatives are most important. First-degree relatives include:

  • Parents
  • Brothers and sisters
  • Children

You probably already know a lot of your family medical history. For the rest, talk to relatives. If you explain the good deed you are doing for the whole family, they may be more open to discussing dates of diagnoses and causes of death. Death certificates are available at your county records department for a reasonable cost. To request a medical record from a hospital or doctor, you must have written permission from the person whose record you want. If they are deceased, you must get written permission from the closest living relative.