Why family history matters

Many doctors will agree that the most crucial part of the patient interview is obtaining a thorough history which includes a family history. You’ve heard the saying, ‘the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.’  Typically we hear this in relation to different personality traits which might be similar to our parents, grandparents, or other distant family members.  But what if we apply this analogy to genetics and inherited disease as well.

Families have many things in common like lifestyle, tendencies, diseases and genes. Knowing one’s family history can identify individuals with a higher-than-usual risk in developing diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, heart disease, sickle cell anemia, cystic fibrosis and many other heritable conditions.   While a family medical history is important in knowing your risk of certain health conditions, it does not mean that an individual will definitely one day suffer from that disease. Furthermore, not having a family history of a disease does not exempt an individual from falling ill.

It’s safe to say that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree in matters of prostate cancer either.  Therefore, when you think of your family tree you can also view it as a map of disease possibilities that can be passed down to you.  As with any other mystery, the more blanks filled and the more information available, the more informed you can be about your current and future health status. Again, the more information available, the more accurate the prediction will be of if a man will get prostate cancer or not.  It may not be so for all illnesses, but for prostate cancer at least, both maternal and paternal family histories matter.  That is mom’s side is just as important as dad’s.  

We already know that having a family history increases the chances of a man having prostate cancer, it is a known risk factor.  We are aware of the fact that a first-degree relative – that is a parent, sibling or child – with prostate cancer increases the risk.  But did you know that even distant relatives matter?  Second- or third-degree relatives with prostate cancer also significantly raise Caucasian males’ risks of the cancer.

Knowing your family history can educate and empower you to take the necessary steps to reduce your health risks. You can start screening for diseases you are at risk for much earlier than people with no history of first degree relatives with the disease.  The age at which a family member’s health problems begin suggests what problems may be strongly hereditary.  So take note if a family member was diagnosed before 50 years old.

You should also be sharing race and country of origin with your doctor, as it is linked to risk of disease. And remember to be honest with your physician about you family history even if you think it’s unrelated to your other health concerns.