What to do if you don’t know your family’s medical history

March 24, 2022 in Health Risk Management  •  By Miles Varn, MD
medical history

Knowing your family’s medical history helps you and your doctors build a plan for screening and preventive care based on the health risks you may face. For example, if your father or mother had a heart attack at a younger age, you could be at a higher risk for heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. Knowing that, your doctor may recommend more frequent blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar screenings and a plan to help you reach and maintain a healthy weight.

But what if you don’t know your family’s medical history or there are significant gaps in what you do know? There are many reasons you may not know or have access to this information. You may be an adoptee or child of a family that used assisted reproductive technologies like a sperm donor or surrogate. You may know only one of your biological parents or have family overseas who you’re not in frequent contact with. You may be estranged from your family or your parents and other relatives may have died before you had a chance to talk with them about their medical history. Or your family may be uncomfortable or unwilling to discuss health issues.

While having access to your family’s medical history is one part of the information that you and your doctor can use to assess your risks for a range of health problems, from certain cancers and diabetes to genetic conditions like sickle cell disease, it’s not the only risk assessment and mitigation tool.

Here are some additional strategies for gathering information and protecting your health:

  • If you have information about your family or are in contact with any family members or one or both of your birth parents, you can consider doing some research using public records like death certificates to learn whatever you can about your family’s medical history. If you’re comfortable talking with family members you know, you can start a conversation about family medical history.
  • If you were adopted in a closed adoption, there should be general non-identified information about your birth parents in the adoption documents. If the adoption wasn’t closed, you may be able to find more specific information about your birth parents in the documents. Contact the Department of Child Welfare in the state where the adoption took place or check to see if the state’s Department of Human Resources has any information on adoption contact and reunion services.
  • Ask your doctor if clinical genetic testing and counselling may provide information that can help you build a risk mitigation and management plan for treatable conditions like breast and colon cancer or sickle cell disease.
  • Stay on top of all standard recommended screenings that can help you identify health problems at an earlier stage. The screenings will vary by age and gender and can include blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar, PAP smear/HPV test, pelvic exams, skin exams, PSA tests, testicular exams, DEXA scan, depression screening, mammograms, and colonoscopies.
  • Make sure you receive regular preventive care to help manage chronic conditions that can increase your risk for serious health problems like heart attacks, strokes, and complications of diabetes and asthma, and get appropriate immunizations.
  • Proactively protect your wellbeing by making healthy lifestyle choices. Choose a healthy diet. Maintain a healthy weight. Get regular exercise. Manage stress. Get enough good quality sleep. Don’t misuse substances and alcohol. Don’t smoke or vape.

A health advisor can help you build a strategy to manage health risks and get the care, support, and information you need to be as healthy as possible. An advisor can also be a valuable resource if you learn you’re at an increased risk for a serious health problem or if you’re diagnosed with a serious, rare, or complex condition.