By Betsy Swope, MS, Certified Genetic Counselor and Reproductive Lead
My favorite Thanksgiving memory is getting to spend time with all my cousins, eating at a separate kids’ table and trying to stay out of trouble. Even though we are all grown now, making new family memories with our own kids, I think fondly back to all the time we were able to spend together. November is Family Health History month, and Thanksgiving is a valuable opportunity to collect your family health history. As you look around your Thanksgiving table, noting generations of family together (behaving or not) , I challenge you to start the conversation. Tell all your loved ones that it is time to start a new tradition—one that can create health and wellness—by discovering family history.
What is a Family Health History?
Considered the “first genetic screen,” a family health history is a record of health information about a person and his or her close relatives, which includes type of health condition and age of diagnosis. A complete record typically provides health information from three generations of relatives: children, brothers and sisters, parents, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, grandparents, and cousins.
What are the benefits of knowing your family health history?
Some conditions, such as cancer and cardiac disease, are common among the general population. However, 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. Knowing these risk factors early can guide appropriate screening and surveillance measures into your health care.
Why is family health history important and how can you use it to improve your health?
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. Lastly, a family history can identify potential health problems that an individual may be at increased risk for in the future.
How can you collect your family health history?
Just start asking questions! Do your family members have any medical problems? How old were they when they received their diagnosis? If you don’t know your full family history, start with your immediate family (brothers, sisters, parents or grandparents). If available, try to ask for medical records for the most accurate information.
Once you’ve gathered the information, it’s a good idea to keep it up-to-date, and to share it with a healthcare professional at your yearly well visits. There are numerous online tools to help you get started, and to track your family history:
Since most of us have some family history of cancer or cardiac disease, finding out about the following medical history scenarios will help your provider determine if your family history places you at a higher risk:
Sudden, unexplained death under the age of 50
Cardiac interventions (eg. 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
Diagnosed with cancer under age 50
Diagnosed with ovarian, fallopian tube, peritoneal or male breast cancer
Diagnosed with a “rare” or “aggressive” type of cancer?
Diagnosed with 10 or more colon polyps?
How can genetic counselors help you interpret your family health history?
Anyone with concerns about their family health history can benefit from speaking to a genetic counselor. During a consultation, the genetic counselor will:
Get to know you and your concerns: Your counselor will take the time to get to know you, your family history, and your unique questions.
Assess potential risk factors: The genetic counselor will look closely at your family history by drawing a pedigree and asking specific questions. These tools help the genetic counselor assess whether your history increases your risk for certain diseases. Some factors the genetic counselor is looking for include:
Diseases that occur at an earlier age than expected
Disease in more than one close relative
Disease that does not usually affect a certain gender (for example, breast cancer in a male)
Certain combinations of diseases within a family (for example, breast and ovarian cancer)
Offer appropriate and relevant genetic testing: Genetic counselors discuss the option of genetic testing relevant to your family history. Additionally, even if you do not have a family history that signifies an increased risk for a particular condition, genetic counselors can discuss the option of genetic screening.
Discuss risks to other family members: Genetic counselors can help identify other family members that may also be at risk, so that those family members can be offered the option of genetic consultation and genetic testing.
Help you and your doctor implement your family history and results into your medical care: The genetic counselor can assess your family health history, interpret genetic test results, and summarize relevant guidelines for screening and management.
How can Genome Medical play a part in your family health?
Genome Medical is a nationwide practice of genetic experts that 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 into a clinical action plan for your doctor. Lastly, Genome Medical can support the entire family (whether they come to the Thanksgiving table or not), and help them understand the impact of their family health information as well.
Asking your family members about their health may not be easy. But it would be great if we could be as comfortable asking “What kind of condition did Grandpa have again?” as “Pass the potatoes, please.” Here’s to a new Thanksgiving tradition!
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