Updated 09 February 2016

Know your family medical history

Many people have a personal or family history of certain diseases and wonder how this will affect their future health risks – or that of their family members.


Many people have a personal or family history of certain diseases and wonder how this will affect their future health risks – or that of their family members. One of the ways to assess your medical risk is to know your family medical history, so you can track certain diseases in your family tree.

It’s simple to put together a family medical history, says Pro Sano Medical Scheme’s Clinical Operations Executive, Dr James Arens, “Family members whose medical history has the most impact on your health risks are your parents, brothers and sisters, grandparents, and aunts and uncles.”

He advises that you make a list of any medical condition within your family as well as the age when the person was diagnosed. Also pay attention to environmental contributors such as lifestyle habits. For example, if someone developed obesity, were their exercise and eating habits primarily to blame?

Hereditary risk of certain diseases
“Certain diseases tend to run in families,” says Dr Arens. These include cardiovascular (heart) disease, stroke, high blood pressure, certain types of cancers such as breast and colon cancer, diabetes, mental illness, osteoporosis, arthritis and obesity.

People who have several family members diagnosed at an early age (with no other environmental risk factors) have a much higher risk of developing that disease. “Early age” can be defined as diabetes before the age of 20, high blood pressure before the age of 40, breast, colon or prostate cancer before the age of 50, and a stroke before the age of 60.

Important to know when choosing a medical scheme
Understanding your family medical history is also an important part of choosing the right medical cover to suit your circumstances, and structuring your medical benefits accordingly. Remember that a medical scheme is a health insurance that needs to cover you not only for your current medical conditions, but for the health risks you and your dependants face later in life.

When selecting your medical scheme, make a list of your risk factors, according to your family history, and then ask what “pathology” cover or benefits the scheme provides.

“For example, if you have a family history of cancer, you want to make sure that your cover provides for scopes to check for colon cancer, or regular mammograms,” says Dr Arens. Other pathology cover would include cholesterol testing, checking blood sugar levels, CAT scans, as well as tests during pregnancy in your unborn children.

You should also find out what cover would be available to you should you develop cancer, arthritis or any of the other “family history” or “genetic” diseases that may feature strongly in your family. You need to make absolutely sure your medical scheme would pay for your treatment and medication if you were to be diagnosed with the disease or condition.

The key to managing your health risks is to know what they are. This will allow you, firstly, to take the necessary lifestyle precautions against developing the disease, and secondly, choose a scheme that covers any medical interventions you may require, so that you are well covered in the event that you are diagnosed.

(Dr James Arens, Clinical Operations Executive Pro Sano Medical Scheme, July 2009)


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