5 important health questions you need to ask your parents

A general practitioner shares the most important information that you should know about your family history

OneLife  staff writer

OneLife staff writer

Staff writer

A comprehensive family history can be vital when it comes to diagnosing and treating medical conditions. However, it’s also something that can easily fall into the ‘I’ll deal with that later’ pile – and sometimes it can fall off the to-do list altogether.

We spoke with general practitioner Cerys Jones, who outlined five important questions that you should ask your parents about you and your family’s history – so you’re not caught out next time you’re sitting in a GP’s office.

Did I ever get sick as a child and did I get my childhood vaccines?

Conditions that present in early childhood should be made a note of, Dr Jones suggests. Exploring any history of asthma, chronic cough, food allergies, ADHD symptoms, and autism spectrum features are good starting points to talk through with your family, she says.

Dr Jones also recommends asking your parents about operations that you may have had as a child, as well as any complications that you or your mother may have experienced at birth. This includes any history of gestational diabetes presented during pregnancy. “If your mum had diabetes in pregnancy that has implications for you and your future offspring,” she says.

The Australian government has attempted to consolidate medical histories with programs like My Health Record and the Australian Immunisation Register, but these initiatives are relatively recent. “Most adults don’t have a centralised computerised vaccination record,” Dr Jones says. “Often, they’re relying on the handheld record at their childhood GP.” As doctors retire or people move on, that valuable information can be lost. So make the effort to document your personal vaccination history.

Make your #onechange

Once you’ve collected your medical history, record it in a document that you can share with your kids in the future.

Has anyone in the immediate family had cancer?

According to Dr Jones, most cancer is spontaneous and linked with lifestyle factors – meaning that it’s not necessarily a familial condition. However, there are certain types of cancer where a genetic link indicates an increased risk. “The big ones are breast, ovarian, prostate, bowel, melanoma and other skin cancer,” she says.

If you do have a family history of these cancers, you should start testing for them earlier than the general population. “For example, with bowel cancer, if you fit the criteria for a familial pattern then you would start getting screenings from 10 years younger than the age that the youngest family member was diagnosed at.”

When it comes to relatives, it’s those in your immediate circle that you should pay the most attention to. “First-degree family members – parents and siblings – share the most genes with you, so they’re the most relevant. Secondary relatives – like aunts, uncles, and grandparents – are next.”

Further out from that genetic inner circle, concern would only be raised if there’s a strong pattern of a specific cancer syndrome. “Sporadic cancers in cousins don’t make a huge difference unless they’re part of a bigger picture of many family members with the same type of cancer,” Dr Jones says. For more information, the Cancer Council of Australia has a comprehensive guide to family cancer history.

Do we have a family history of stroke?

“Any stroke that has occurred is a red flag,” Dr Jones says. If your family does have a history of strokes, be sure to document the ages that they occurred. “These are conditions that normally affect people in later life. If they occur early – in the 30s, 40s, and 50s – it suggests there might be something more going on than just the normal ageing process.”

Similarly, consider the role that lifestyle factors play in any history of stroke, especially modifiable behaviours like smoking. “If grandpa was a 15-a-day smoker and had a stroke at 65 years old, that might not be so concerning to you,” she points out. “But it would be worth knowing about.”

Additionally, pay attention to any occurrence of vascular disease in the family. “If there’s a tendency toward clotting – like blood clots and pulmonary emboli – that can cause strokes. That would definitely be relevant, and something for further exploration by your doctor.”

Does our family have a history of high cholesterol?

According to Dr Jones, high cholesterol is just one factor of many that work in tandem to increase the risk of vascular disease – but it’s an important one to consider.

“The two types of cholesterol that are of main concern are HDL (high-density lipoprotein) and LDL (low-density lipoprotein). LDL cholesterol deposits in the walls of arteries and obstructs the blood flow through those vessels,” Dr Jones explains. “The vessels most commonly affected are those of the eyes, kidneys, heart, and brain, causing impaired vision, kidney failure, heart attacks, and strokes.” Colloquially, HDL cholesterol is known as ‘good cholesterol’ because of the role that it plays in removing other forms from your body.

While many factors that influence cholesterol levels are modifiable by lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking and improving diet, there are some genetic links to watch out for. “Familial hypercholesterolemia affects a small minority of people with high cholesterol,” Dr Jones says. Be sure to ask your parents whether anyone in your family has ever been diagnosed with this condition.

Is there any family history of mental illness?

A history of mental illness in the family does put you at increased risk of developing one yourself, but that’s just one of many contributing factors, Dr Jones says: “It’s about the interplay between your genetics and your environment. Genes give you a vulnerability towards developing a mental illness, but it's how you interact with your environment that would then convert into clinical disorder.”

Dr Jones recommends having a frank discussion with your family members about mental health, but – as she points out – it’s essential to be aware of shifting attitudes and understanding of these issues. “In previous generations, things like autism spectrum disorder were very poorly understood, and sexuality was pathologised so people were diagnosed with a mental illness for being homosexual.” Be wary of anachronistic jargon and colloquialisms that might no longer be useful or relevant – and if you have any doubts or concerns, talk them over with a GP.

OneLife  staff writer

OneLife staff writers come from a range of backgrounds including health, wellbeing, music, tech, culture and the arts. They spend their time researching the latest data and trends in the health market to deliver up-to-date information, helping everyday Australians live healthier lives. This is general information only and is not intended as medical, health, nutritional or other advice. You should obtain professional advice from a medical or health practitioner in relation to your own personal circumstances. The information in this article is general information only and is not intended as medical, health, nutritional or other advice. You should obtain professional advice from a medical or health practitioner in relation to your own personal circumstances.

The information in this article is general information only and is not intended as financial, medical, health, nutritional, tax or other advice. It does not take into account any individual’s personal situation or needs. You should consider obtaining professional advice from a financial adviser and/or tax specialist, or medical or health practitioner, in relation to your own circumstances and before acting on this information.