Benefits of knowing your family history

By Christina Min
Your grandparents have blue eyes, your parents have blue eyes, and now you have blue eyes. We know this is passed down because of family genes. But eye colour is not the only thing that is passed down between generations.
Genes can code for eye colour but also for more sinister conditions such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and some cancers. Genetic conditions are often called hereditary because they can be passed from parents to their children. This is what doctors mean when they say a condition‘runs in the family’.
Some common conditions that are influenced by a family history are:
  • asthma
  • birth defects (for example, spina bifida or a cleft lip)
  • cancer (including breast, ovarian, prostate, bowel/colon or melanoma skin cancer)
  • diabetes
  • genetic conditions, for example, cystic fibrosis or haemophilia
  • heart disease or sudden heart attack
  • high blood pressure (hypertension) or high cholesterol
  • mental illness
  • osteoporosis
  • more than 3 pregnancy losses to a couple or woman
  • stillbirths
  • stroke
Why should you dig up your family’s 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 can identify family health patterns early, you may have the most to gain from lifestyle changes and screening tests.
Doctors can personalise screening tests and even do preventative treatment to reduce your chances of getting some conditions. This means better health in the long term.
You can then pass this knowledge on to your relatives and children to help them plan for their future health. This small step can impact your kids and future grandchildren, even more than you realise!
How do I learn more about my family health history?
  • Talk to relatives about their health information.
  • Gene testing kits
Knowing your family history is not enough - Act on It!
As recommended by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention:
• Has your mother or sister had breast cancer? Talk with your doctor about whether having a mammogram earlier is right for you. About 5% to 10% of breast cancer cases are thought to be hereditary, meaning that they result directly from gene changes (mutations) passed on from a parent. Most inherited cases of breast cancer are associated with mutations in BRCA1 (BReast CAncer gene one) and BRCA2 (BReast CAncer gene two).
• Does your mom, dad, sister, or brother have diabetes? If so, you could have prediabetes and are more likely to get type 2 diabetes yourself. Ask your doctor how early you should be screened for diabetes.
• Did your mom, dad, brother, or sister get colorectal (bowel) cancer before age 50? Talk with your doctor about whether you should start getting colonoscopies earlier or have them done more often. If there is a family history of Colorectal Cancer it is important to be screened on a regular basis.
• Has a family member been diagnosed with Prostate cancer before the age of 60? Men who have a close relative with prostate cancer may be twice as likely to develop the disease, while those with 2 or more relatives may be nearly 4 times as likely to be diagnosed. 58% of prostate cancer is driven by genetic factors.
• Has your mom, dad or siblings had skin melanoma? Having multiple first degree family members with melanoma increases your risk of developing melanoma 30 to 70 times.
• Has someone on your father’s or mother’s side had ovarian cancer? Up to 20% of epithelial ovarian cancers may be hereditary and run in families. Hereditary cancers are caused by inheriting a variant in a ‘cancer protection’ gene that stops it from working properly.
• Has your parent or sibling had a heart attack, stroke, or was diagnosed with heart disease before age 60? You could’ve inherited genes that cause heart disease. Certain genes can pass on risk factors such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol. Shared environments can also be passed on to you from the previous generation in your family. You may have developed certain eating habits or lifestyle behaviours, such as preferences for certain types of food or a sedentary lifestyle.
A Heart Health Check is recommended from the age of 45 (from 30 for Aboriginal and Torres Strait peoples), but your doctor may want to assess your risk of developing heart disease earlier if you have a family history of heart disease.
Center for Disease Control and Prevention