A few years ago, a 21-year-old college student came to my office because of intermittent pain in his right ankle. He'd had a ski accident 10 months earlier, but had also been experiencing increasingly frequent pain and numbness in his hands for several years—for which the cause was not clear. After a Lyme disease test came back negative, his primary care doctor referred him to me to investigate the possibility of nerve damage.

I found no nerve damage. It was not until I asked about his family medical history that I determined the possible cause of his concerns. My patient’s mother and maternal grandmother had rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disorder that tends to attack the joints. Having a parent, sibling, or child with rheumatoid arthritis is one of the strongest risk factors for the disorder.

His rheumatoid arthritis test came back positive, which also put him at higher risk for other autoimmune diseases, as well as heart attack and stroke. So knowing a bit about the patient’s family’s medical history allowed me to glean a great deal of information about his current health and future risks.

How a Family Medical History Helps You

In order to get a better picture of your own risks, put together a family history, a record of health data about several generations of relatives. A medical history will help you gain insight into your likelihood of developing specific conditions. It can also provide your doctors with clues they may need to reach a diagnosis.

There is no better time to gather that information than at family get-togethers. So as the holiday season approaches, start the conversation.

Digital Tools Can Make It Easier

You can simply write down your family’s information, but some digital tools make it much easier to build, update, and share:

Get the Right Information

Make a list of relatives to talk with. Include parents, siblings, children, aunts and uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews, and grandparents. Ask them about current and past medical and mental health conditions, and their ages at diagnosis.

Pay special attention to conditions that developed much earlier than typical or affected multiple family members. Include pregnancy complications such as miscarriage and stillbirth, and birth defects.
Ask about deceased family members’ cause of death, other health problems, and age at death. Ethnicity is important, because some diseases are more common in certain groups. Sickle cell anemia, for example, is more likely to occur in those of African, African-American, or Mediterranean heritage.

Talk With Your Doctor

Share the medical history you've put together with your relatives and your primary care doctor, who might use the information to assess your risk of certain conditions and recommend lifestyle changes. If you have a strong family history of heart disease, for example, your physician might suggest a healthy diet and exercise program or encourage you to stop smoking.

Doctors might also use the medical history to identify other family members’ risks, choose diagnostic and genetic tests, put together a treatment plan, or change intervals for screening tests. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, for instance, notes that women with a parent, sibling, or child with breast cancer might benefit more than average-risk women from starting breast cancer screenings between 40 and 49, rather than at age 50.

Without some background on your family’s health, your doctor really is at a disadvantage. In fact, I was startled to learn several years ago that my brother and his son had an autoimmune disease called ankylosing spondylitis. Each went undiagnosed for years by physicians who had not connected their individual complaints of joint pain. A family medical history could have meant an earlier diagnosis.