Who hasn’t wondered about their health? Am I exercising enough? Is a vegetarian diet really better for me? What’s the maximum number of midnight snacks I can sneak into my diet? In questioning your own health, it is important to consider how the health of your relatives may impact it. Does my mom’s diagnosis of breast cancer increase my own risk for cancer? Could I have inherited my dad’s risk for high blood pressure? What was it that Aunt Sally’s granddaughter had?
Knowing more about your family health history can empower you to take better control of your own health, and the health of those you love. This is a guide to putting together the family pieces of your own health puzzle.
We will cover the following:
- Which members of my family do I talk to?
- What conditions do I ask about?
- How will my health care provider use this information?
- What if I don't have access to my family health history?
Who do I talk to in my family?
To start, defining “what is family health history” is important. A family health history is a record of health information about a person and close relatives.
Who is a "close relative"? A complete record typically provides health information from three generations of relatives: children, grandchild, siblings (including half-siblings), parents, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, grandparents and cousins.
Families often have a historian -- that one relative who can tell you the middle names of every relative or who pulls out the family anthology at family get-togethers. This person is also likely to have the health details on various family members, be it Aunt Betty’s chronic bunions or Uncle Andy’s gout. Admittedly, while bunions and gout may be of little to no importance to your personal health, many other conditions certainly can be.
What conditions do I ask about?
The National Society of Genetic Counselors offers a list of information worth gathering. This includes:
- Age or date of birth, and cause of death for those who have died
- Medical problems and approximate age of onset for conditions such as:
- Autism or intellectual disabilities
- Physical defects (spina bifida, cleft palate, heart defects, etc.)
- Cancer conditions
- Diagnosed with cancer under age 50
- Diagnosed with a “rare” or “aggressive” type of cancer
- Diagnosed with 10 or more colon polyps
- Cardiac issues
- Sudden, unexplained death under the age of 50
- Cardiac interventions (e.g., pacemaker, implantable defibrillator, cardiac bypass surgery, heart transplant) under the age of 50
- High “bad” cholesterol (LDL), heart attack or stroke under the age of 50
- Fainted or had a seizure with exercise, excitement or startle that had no identified cause
- Neurological, muscular or skeletal anomalies
- Kidney or liver disease
- Vision or hearing loss at a young age
- Abnormal sexual maturation, delayed puberty or fertility issues, including infertility, multiple pregnancy losses or babies who died in infancy
- Mental health issues
- Unexplained medical conditions
- Young/early deaths due to known or unknown medical conditions
- For those who have medical concerns, collecting circumstantial information is helpful, such as whether they smoke, exercise, are overweight, etc.
Is it likely you will obtain all of this information on every one of your relatives? No.
Are you expected to do this in a single session? No.
But it may give you a reason for multiple get-togethers with your Aunt Sue over a slice of her killer apple strudel.
The above list is meant as a guide to give you a sense of the type of information medical professionals find helpful to know about. It is not meant as a To Do List.
How will my health care provider use this information?
Certain factors in one’s family history—early age of onset and multiple family members with the same condition, for instance—can suggest a higher likelihood of developing these conditions. Early identification of risk factors allows you and a health professional the opportunity to take steps to reduce your risk. Sometimes this means making lifestyle changes, and sometimes it means increased monitoring and testing.
Other conditions are strictly genetic and have a more significant impact on your risk for recurrence. Knowing this may influence what you do with this information, be it in terms of educating yourself, obtaining life or disability insurance, or deciding if and how to pursue a pregnancy.
What if I don't have access to my family health history?
This information may not be the easiest to obtain. But we can help.
Genome Medical has a nationwide network of genetic experts who can assess your concerns regarding your family history and discuss the potential benefits of genetic testing. A Genome Medical genetic counselor will interpret your family history and genetic test results and combine those into a clinical action plan for you and your treating provider. We can support the entire family and help them understand the impact of their family health information as well.
Lastly, sometimes you may just never have access to family health information. Sometimes a person is estranged from their family, a person may be adopted and not know the birth family’s history, or perhaps medical conditions may simply not be discussed among relatives.
While knowing your family health history can empower you to take better control of your own health, there is still a lot of preventative care you can pursue without this information.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has health screening recommendations for men and women of all ages. In addition, multiple companies offer the option of Proactive Genetic Health Screening, and Genome Medical can help you pursue this if you are interested.