How can knowing my family history help me stay healthy?

Just as scientists are working to understand the human genome, physicians are working hard to apply it to your life.  A group of healthcare professionals has created a whole curriculum to teach doctors how to incorporate genetics and family history into regular conversations with their patients.  Watch this video to find out more.

There is a health story in every family history. Conversations about family health history should be ongoing, not a one-time topic to be discussed and forgotten. What you learn can shape your future and even save your life. Take charge of your health; visit

Carlos' Story

Every man in my family has died before age 50 – my father, grandfather, and uncles. I always assumed I wouldn’t make it to 50.

A few years ago my cousin told me that he told his doctor about our family health history. His doctor did some tests and found out that my cousin was at risk for heart disease – maybe even a heart attack. He put my cousin on medication to lower his cholesterol and told him to stop eating so many fried foods.

I talked to my doctor and got the same test and advice. Last year, I threw the biggest 50th birthday party ever!

Your family health history tells more than just what diseases run in your family. It includes information about where your family has lived and what kind of work and activities they do. This can help you see where you and your family face risks to your health. Your healthcare provider can help you understand these risks and suggest the steps to prevent disease or make it less harmful.

What to Look Out for

Some genes passed down in a family can increase the chance of getting certain health conditions. You can find out if you are at risk for these diseases that run in families by examining the pattern of disease in your family. Inherited diseases show up in distinct patterns: 

  • One or more close relatives may have the disease.
  • A disease may occur at much younger ages in your family than it usually does (10 to 20 years before most people get the disease), such as colon cancer in a close relative less than 60 years old.
  • A family member may have a disease that does not usually affect their gender, such as breast cancer in a man.
  • There could be certain combinations of diseases within your family—for example, breast and ovarian cancer, or heart disease and diabetes.

If any of these are true in your family, your family history may hold important clues for you. It can't tell the future, but it can give you information that can help you directly.

I Have a Family Health History—Now What?

Though you cannot change your genes, you can change your behavior. What you eat, how much you weigh, how active you are, and your surroundings can raise or lower your chance of developing certain diseases. You have several options for staying healthier:

  • You could add more fruits and veggies to your diet and replace saturated fats such as butter with unsaturated fats like those in avocados.
  • You can get more exercise—even a little bit more can help.
  • You may get medical treatment, such as having polyps removed or taking medicine to lower your cholesterol.
  • You can help your doctor keep an eye out for changes with regular tests.

Some genetic diseases are not passed down from your parents. You may carry a new version of a gene that causes problems but that your family members don’t have. It’s still helpful to learn about, especially if you have children of your own.

Tests can also find other issues, like high cholesterol and high blood pressure. This gives you a chance to make better choices about your health and to get treatment for those common problems early, when it is most effective.