Families pass down a huge amount of information from generation to generation. Some of it is easy to see, like the curly red hair on your dad’s side of the family, and there’s no denying you get your green eyes from your mom. But it’s harder to see other inheritances, like if you’re at a greater risk for something like cancer.
You can’t control the genetics you’re given, but understanding your family’s medical history can give you a leg-up on conditions that might run along your family lines. We sat down with Jennifer Siettmann, a genetic counselor with Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center, to learn why everyone should be mapping their family’s medical history.
“Family medical history is very important to healthcare professionals,” Siettmann said. “We can use your family medical history to guide your management, make appropriate lifestyle recommendations or to determine whether you would benefit from genetic testing."
What is a family medical history?
Your family medical history is made up of the invisible traits passed down from your family, which create your anatomy and natural attributes. Documenting these traits has given us a better picture of inherent health and educates you to prepare for your future.
It’s best to start simple to keep from getting overwhelmed. Begin by having a conversation with your parents, siblings and children about their health and their experiences. Take notes on any medications they take, their medical conditions and any surgeries they may have had. No issue is too small to write down, but keep in mind that issues not caused by or affecting genetics, like broken bones, can’t be inherited.
It’s important to pull together a document with as much information as possible. Reach out to grandparents or great-grandparents, if possible, for information on their health and the health of family members who have passed away. While you can only inherit conditions from people related to you by blood, step-siblings or family friends could have helpful information for you as well.
Look ahead to reduce risk
Once you’ve compiled your family’s health information, schedule a visit with your primary care provider to discuss what it might mean for your future. Your provider will be able to help you understand your risk factors for certain conditions and any preventive steps you might be able to take. While treatment should always be tailored to your specific circumstances, your provider might suggest options like:
- Staying fit if heart disease is common
- Getting a screening test for diabetes if family members have the disease
- Starting colonoscopies earlier if a member of your immediate family had colon cancer before age 50
Family health information is especially useful when planning for pregnancy. Since hereditary conditions can be passed on by both parents, it’s important to understand the possibilities and if any extra testing might be needed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) family health history checklist can guide conversations with your provider about potential risks and treatment options.
Make informed decisions
To make this even trickier, some disorders, such as breast cancer, will present differently in men and women. Conditions like dementia might emerge 10-20 years earlier than expected if your family has a history of the disease. Other illnesses can present together, like breast and ovarian cancer or heart disease and diabetes.
Thankfully, your provider can use your family medical history in combination with your symptoms to help determine when to worry. A number of disorders run in families, and according to the CDC, you’re more likely to develop a condition if one of your close relatives has already been diagnosed.
“If you have a family medical history and you see a trend of the same kinds of diseases in the family,” Siettmann said, “we encourage you to take that information to your physician or a genetic counselor to see if genetic testing might be appropriate."
But what if you don’t know any of your blood relatives?
“Not having a family history is hard because it can be so helpful to medical providers” Siettmann said, but life events like divorce and adoption can make it difficult to find blood relatives who can provide important family history details. It’s often useful to ask other relatives or family friends for reliable information on medical conditions, surgeries or causes of death if you need help filling in the gaps. In the case of adoption, many agencies will keep health records on file to help fill in family history gaps where possible.
Gathering your family medical history might not be easy, but the conversation is important. You might be able to find a great deal of information on conditions that run in your family, but some family members might be resistant to talking about their health problems. Remember, you’re not just asking for yourself, but for everyone in your family.
Schedule an appointment with a Banner Health specialist and learn more about your family medical history.