As you gather around the dinner table with loved ones this holiday season, in between laughs, hugs and pictures, take a minute to discuss your family health history — the medical conditions your grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles might have had. By learning about them, you may be able to identify your own potential genetic risks and start taking the steps necessary to live a longer, healthier life.
While most people can easily identify physical traits that run in the family — curly hair, dimples, freckles, handedness, etc. — it’s the traits we cannot
see that we need to pay extra attention to. Your genetic make-up plays an important role in determining whether you’ll develop many common health conditions like arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer. In some families, the chance of getting certain cancers can be passed down from one generation to the next. By knowing which health conditions your relatives have had, you can find important clues about your own health risks. Armed with that information, you and your doctor can develop a plan to help manage your risks, and even prevent some disorders from developing. And while you can’t change your genetic makeup, certain behaviors and health checkups may help you better manage your health at every stage of life. The information you learn and share with your relatives today can also protect the health of your family members for generations to come.
Your family history should include all of your blood relatives, both living and deceased, going back at least three generations. That means your grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, cousins and your siblings. Both sides of your family are equally important because we all get half of our genes from each parent. Try to get everyone involved. Make it a family project. If some of your relatives don’t feel comfortable sharing their medical details, help them understand how important this information can be both to their health and the health of everyone else in the family.
Try to get as many details as possible, including the specific names of disorders, where in the body any cancers started, and the age at which your relative was first diagnosed with the condition. If your family health history fits the “Rule of Too’s/Two’s” it might suggest an inherited risk:
- Too young: relatives getting cancer, or other disorder, much younger than the average person
- Too many: two or more relatives with the same disorder, on the same side of the family
- Two or more generations, on the same side of the family, with the same disorder
- Two or more cancers in the same person. For example: a woman with breast and ovarian cancer
- Too uncommon. For example: breast cancer in a man
Once you gather the information, share it with your loved ones and, most importantly, with your primary care provider. Once he or she has a better understanding of your family health history, your doctor can recommend when to start preventive screenings and how often you’ll need them. If your family health history suggests the possibility of an inherited disorder, your doctor may also refer you for a genetic consultation and possible genetic testing.
Exploring your family medical tree can take some good detective work on your part, but it’s well worth the effort. What you learn will help you and your doctor assess your health risks and help you act to protect your family’s health.
The Office of the U.S. Surgeon General offers a tool called My Family Health Portrait that allows you to enter, print and update your family health history. The American Medical Association also provides family history tools, including questionnaires and forms for collecting medical information. Last, the National Society of Genetic Counselors has a handy guide to help you draw your own family tree.