Knowing your family’s medical history might not just save you hassle, but also save your life.
Here are some health questions you’ll want to make sure to ask your parents, grandparents, and other relatives while you have the chance.
Did you ever get sick with other than the usual colds and stomach flus that every child experiences? What did you have, and how did your parents treat it? Were you ever hospitalized? Some childhood illnesses can crop up later in life, such as chickenpox, which can morph into shingles in old age. Other conditions may give you clues about what to expect for your children.
If you went to public school in the U.S., odds are good that you’ve received your childhood vaccines. Did you get a chickenpox vaccine? If you were sexually active, did you get a human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine? When was your last tetanus shot (which needs to be updated once every ten years)?
Your parents may have a copy of your childhood medical records. If not, try to get your vaccination history from your childhood doctor. Traveling to some countries requires certain vaccinations, so if you’ve been abroad, you may have received some of your necessary vaccinations already.
Find out if either of your parents has had any health conditions, such as high cholesterol or a cancerous mole. This can help you start making wise health decisions, such as avoiding saturated fats or wearing sunscreen outdoors. Ask also about your parents’ siblings—unless you’re adopted, you share about 25 percent of their DNA.
Next, ask about your grandparents. If they’re alive, are any of them sick? If so, with what? If they have passed away, how did they die? If any of them has Alzheimer’s disease you’ll know to maintain a physically and mentally active lifestyle and make plans for your own care when you reach their age. If heart disease, obesity, or type II diabetes runs in the family, it will be important for you to maintain a healthy weight and stay fit. If a grandparent has had cancer, you should start getting colonoscopies and mammograms or prostate exams about 10 years sooner than normal.
Finally, ask if any of your family members had health troubles or were “sickly” throughout their lives, and find out what their symptoms were. Many diseases may not have received a diagnosis, either because your relatives’ symptoms didn’t appear severe enough to warrant medical attention or because medicine simply hadn’t advanced enough to treat them properly when they were ill.
Although the root cause of mental illness is still unknown, such disorders tend to run in families. Mental illness is also a spectrum, not a binary—you may not suffer from major depression like your cousin does, but you may struggle with depression sometimes when under stress. Even if you’re adopted, knowing your family history is still useful. Some of the risk factors for mental illness are passed from one generation to the next behaviorally while you are growing up.
Ask about your whole extended family—including your grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Has anyone been diagnosed with a mental illness? Was there anyone in the family who was “troubled”?
Many mental illnesses first appear when people are in their early to mid-20s. If your family has a history of bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, you’ll want to avoid using drugs, particularly marijuana and psychedelics, which can trigger your first manic or psychotic break. You’ll also want to stay away from cigarettes, which may be particularly addictive—about 80 percent of people in the United States with schizophrenia smoke cigarettes.
If depression crops up (and it very well could—one in five people will experience depression in their lifetime), make sure you have a robust social support system and healthy coping mechanisms during times of stress. If someone in your family has had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and you experience a traumatic event, it’s particularly important to seek therapy early.
If you have any of these illnesses, exercise extreme caution regarding alcohol use, because you’re at greater risk of becoming addicted.
Some diseases are triggered by mutations in just one or two genes. Some genetic diseases, such as Huntington’s disease, will always appear if you’ve inherited a certain gene from one of your parents.
Other diseases, such as Tay-Sachs or sickle cell anemia, require faulty genes from both parents. If you inherit the gene from just one parent, then you’re known as a carrier—meaning you don’t have the disease but can still pass it on to your children. If you’re marrying someone with the same ethnic background as yourself, then the likelihood that your partner is also a carrier of the same disease-causing gene rises dramatically.
For diseases like Tay-Sachs—which is fatal for all children who have it—prenatal genetic testing can spare your family the anguish of losing a child. Asking your parents whether they carry any these disease genes can save you from having to get a genetic test yourself.