The Importance of Family Medical History
Q: Every time I go to the doctor, I am asked about my relatives’ diseases. I even see advertisements on TV about getting my genes tested to know my family history. Why does family history matter so much?
A: Doctors repeatedly ask about your family history because your family members (especially living brothers and sisters) might have developed new problems since you last saw the doctor. Or you might have remembered other conditions you didn’t tell us about. We sometimes also ask about your spouse because your spouse lives with you and thus shares the same environmental exposures.
Knowing that three of your ancestors had diabetes or that your grandmother had breast cancer at an early age could help you and your children live longer, healthier lives. When you know what you are most likely to get, you can tailor preventive care for conditions such as diabetes, osteoporosis, and cancers of the breast, colon and prostate.
Related: How to Know If You’re Healthy Enough
How to paint a family portrait
Start by downloading the family history form on the Surgeon General’s My Family Health Portrait website. Add your spouse first, then move on to biological family.
You don’t have to go further back than your grandparents. You might recall the genetic Mendel grid from biology class and and how a fruit fly’s ability to pass his tiny wings to his great-grandson was so genetically diluted, it was practically nil. There are some exceptions, though: Include great-grandparents and any other distant forebear if they had a disease or condition that is especially rare and deadly, or acquired before age 35.
Begin filling out the template with the info you know offhand. You want to record each relative’s birth date and (if applicable) death date, the jobs they performed, and any diseases they had that might have a genetic link. Your doctor can clarify this if you aren’t certain about the disease or if it was never diagnosed. Just list the symptoms the person had.
Like most people, you’ll need to do some investigating.
If you hail from a family of 14 children or have more aunts than you can count, just remember to keep your radar sharp for three factors: serious illness, death before age 60 and potentially fatal conditions. At a bare minimum, you need to know why your parents and grandparents died. A great place to gather this information is at a family reunion or get-together.
Once you have a good family history in place, don’t keep it to yourself.
Talk to your health care team about it. It is a springboard for discussions about you and your family members’ health. Decades ago, you couldn’t do much about your family health history but wring your hands and worry. Now, because of research, you can take action. Genetic counselors and genetic physicians can evaluate you for risks, diagnose diseases early and seek appropriate treatment or preventive measures. Family health history can and should be empowering.
This article originally appeared in the November 2017 issue of SUCCESS magazine.
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Henry Elkus founded Helena to find solutions to society’s biggest challenges.