Skip to content

How Genetics Affects Your Risk of Disease

Why is my family health history so important?

Your risk of developing some diseases can be passed down through your family’s genes. In most cases – not all – a family’s history with a health problem poses a minimal risk to other family members. For example, in the general population, 5 percent develop colon cancer. But if a parent or sibling has the disease, it can increase your risk by 10 to 12 percent. According to Julie Zenger-Hain, PhD, Medical Genetics/Oakwood Hospital,  if there’s a genetic cause, the risk may be as high as 90 percent.

If it’s determined you’re at increased risk to develop a health problem, your doctor can guide you in ways to protect yourself as much as possible. This includes early screenings as well as healthy diet and exercise habits.


How do I get my family history?

Fill out a family history form at your doctor’s office. But come prepared. It’s typical to forget details about your family’s health history while sitting in a waiting room. Important things like what at age was your mom diagnosed with diabetes?


Before your appointment, research the information with your family members. Write it down ahead of time to be sure you get all the details right. And share your information so your relatives can benefit, too. These are sensitive topics, but you can make collecting your family health history in to a fun project. Take advantage of family gatherings or holidays. And don’t forget to update your records every year.


Who do I include? 

Definitely include first-degree relatives. That’s your parents and siblings. Second-degree relatives are also important – such as grandparents, aunts, uncles and grandchildren. Third-degree (your cousins) can be included, but don’t fret if you have some holes in your history. Some information is better than none.


What should I Include?

Some of the most important diseases and conditions to note are:

• Heart disease

• Diabetes

• Thyroid issues

• Stroke

• Cancers


Be as detailed as possible. For example, don’t just note that a relative had a heart attack. Include the age when your relative started receiving care for the condition, such as being prescribed blood pressure medication. Also note the results and dates of screenings (e.g., colonic polyps were found by a colonoscopy).


What are some key signs I might be at increased risk?

The following situations can signal increased risk:

• A family member diagnosed with a health concern at an early age (especially before 50)

• The presence of the same disease in more than one first degree close relative

• Certain combinations of conditions, like heart disease and diabetes


Armed with the facts, discuss your history with your doctor. Together, you can reduce your risk and and screening regimens to help maintain good health.


An easy tool to track health history

While there are several family health history tools online, geneticist Julie Zenger Hain recommends My Family Health History from the U.S. Surgeon General. After creating your family medical history, you can print copies and save the data to your computer. It also lets you upload, update and share information with family members. The tool does not store your information.

Categories: Get Healthy