The Medical Minute: Understanding personal health history for a healthier you

October 25, 2018

As researchers learn that more health conditions have genetic links, knowing your personal and family health history becomes more important than ever. Upcoming holiday gatherings with family members can be a good time to sit down and piece together missing information so you know your personal risk factors and what preventative steps to take.

Dr. Mack Ruffin, chair of the Department of Family and Community Medicine at Penn State Health, said many of his patients simply haven’t had that conversation with their relatives.

“If you are in your 50s or 60s and your parents are still living, you need to make sure you get that information soon,” he said. “I’m amazed how many adults don’t understand their own personal health history and what surgeries they had as a child.”

He recommends knowing the health history of all first-degree relatives, which include parents and siblings. If those relatives are deceased, it is important to know what they died from and how old they were at the time of death. If they were diagnosed with an illness, find out how old they were at the time of diagnosis and what the exact diagnosis was.

“Cancer in particular can be challenging,” he said. “People often know someone died from cancer, but they don’t know what type.”

Patients can use the information they collect to discuss with their health care provider the preventative measures they should take. “We try to tailor what we recommend to people based on their family history,” Ruffin said. “A lot of diseases have genetic components.”

If colon cancer – or early-onset colon cancer – runs in the family, you may want to start screenings for it before the recommended age of 50. If your parent died from a heart attack in his or her 40s, you may need to be more aggressive about controlling your risk factors – keeping a healthy weight and cholesterol profile and not smoking.

Ruffin cautions against making blanket assumptions based on the information you collect. He said it’s important to know some context: “What that person did might be different than what you are doing.”

For instance, if your grandfather smoked or worked in a mine and died of lung cancer but you do neither, your chances of developing lung cancer are not necessarily as high.

“So when the pumpkin pie is gone, sift through family records and have some conversations with your relatives,” Ruffin said. “There are many useful tools online to help collect, track and document the information. It’s really important to understand your medical history and have it as accurate as possible.”

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The Medical Minute is a weekly health news feature produced by Penn State Health. Articles feature the expertise of faculty, physicians and staff, and are designed to offer timely, relevant health information of interest to a broad audience.

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Last Updated November 05, 2018