Collect and Share Your Family Health History


Learning – and sharing – information about your own family health history can be one important step toward making healthy changes for your future.

In recognition of February as American Heart Month, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) suggests using this month to collect details about your family history of heart disease and other conditions. Don’t forget to share this information with not only your physician but other family members as well.

According to the CDC, more than 610,000 people die each year in the U.S. from heart disease. There are a number of factors that make someone more likely to develop heart disease, including having close blood relatives with heart disease. That makes it vitally important for your health future to make sure you have all the details you need to chart your own medical care.

Other conditions, not just family history, can be factors in the emergence of heart disease, including high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Lifestyle also makes a difference – factors such as an unhealthy diet, lack of physical activity and smoking can enter into the discussion.

If you have learned that you have a family health history that includes heart disease, talk to those with the condition. Make a list of which relatives have heart disease and your relation to them. Find out at what age they were diagnosed, and make sure your physician knows whether a parent or sibling has heart disease. Share this information with your doctor so you can work together on steps to decrease your chances of being diagnosed with heart disease.

Some of those steps may include:

  • Not smoking.
  • Being physically active.
  • Maintaining a healthy weight.
  • Eating a healthy diet.
  • Checking your cholesterol and blood pressure.
  • Managing chronic diseases, such as diabetes.
  • Limiting alcohol use.

Depending on the results of your family health history, a physician may evaluate you for Familial Hypercholesterolemia. It is a genetic disorder caused by a defect on chromosome 19. The defect makes your body unable to remove the low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad” cholesterol from your blood.

Recent data suggest that more than 1.3 million people, or 1 in 250 people, in the U.S. have FH and that many of them are undertreated, even when they know they have high cholesterol. If it is untreated, you are 13-times more likely to develop coronary heart disease.

If you have FH, your doctor may prescribe cholesterol-lowering medicine. You’ll need to check your cholesterol regularly and consider having other family members tested for FH.

Typically, a physician will check your blood tests for cholesterol levels at least every five years. You may have it checked more frequently if you already have a diagnosis or a family history.

Remember when you are collecting your family health history that you want to consider more information the better – conditions such as high cholesterol or blood pressure, or family lore about relatives having heart attacks, may not be enough. Ask about potential genetic factors, and you can also delve into death certificates and obituaries if verbal information is lacking on some relatives.

The CDC also advises people that “knowing is not enough.” When you learn important health details, taking action may save your life.

For instance, if you are a female and your mother or sister had breast cancer, speak with your doctor about mammograms. Or if your parents or siblings have diabetes, it might be important to get screened

yourself. Colorectal, or colon cancer, is another reason health histories are important. If your parents or siblings had colorectal cancer before the age of 50, speak with your physician about whether it is necessary for you to get colonoscopies before that age, or to have them more often than typically recommended.

The CDC’s “My Family Health Portrait,” is a tool from the Surgeon General to help get informed about risks for conditions that run in families; print your family health history to share or save your history so it can be updated as needed.

The information can be found at