How Your Family Health History Can Help You

Your genes are what make you uniquely yourself, but they also carry certain similarities through your family. For example, the genes your parents passed down are responsible for your eye color, height, hair type, and sometimes, unfortunately, health issues.

Typically, at least one type of chronic disease will affect a family, such as cancer, heart disease, or diabetes. If you have one or more close relatives with a chronic disease or condition, you may be more likely to develop it yourself. You would also be at higher risk if the affected relative developed the disease at a young age.

A birthday, holiday, or family gathering is the perfect opportunity to open the discussion about hereditary health. We encourage you to take this upcoming holiday season as a chance to discuss the following information with your family members.

Details You Need

Here are three important questions you should be asking:

  1. If your parents and/or grandparents are no longer alive—what did they pass from?
  2. Do three or more people in the family experience the same health issues or symptoms? (If so, your risk for developing that issue is higher.)
  3. Is there a pattern with diagnoses—such as age, ethnicity, or lifestyle choices?

Knowing these details, and sharing them with your doctor, can determine what tests and screening you need and how frequently. This also helps doctors keep an eye on certain red flags associated with hereditary diseases in your family, which can lead to early detection and higher recovery and remission rates.

Collecting Information

Only those who share a blood relation to you contribute to your health history, so stepsiblings, adopted relatives, or family members through marriage do not impact your genetic makeup.

For a complete picture, try collecting information from the following family members:

  • Mother
  • Father
  • Sisters and half-sisters
  • Brothers and half-brothers
  • Children
  • Grandmother
  • Grandfather
  • Aunts
  • Uncles
  • Nieces
  • Nephews

Valuable information to have:

  • Medical conditions
  • Causes of death
  • Age at diagnosis
  • Age at death
  • Ethnic background
  • Death certificates
  • Medical records

To document your research and findings, download the Family Health Portrait here.

Follow these five steps:

  1. Enter your family health history.
  2. Learn about your risk for conditions that may run in your family.
  3. Print your family health history to share with your family and health care provider.
  4. Save your family health history so you can update it over time.
  5. Share it with your children to educate them on the family health risks.

How Diseases Are Inherited

After researching, you may find that some issues are more likely to run in your family than others, but what makes it that way?

Genetic health issues can be tricky. Some diseases are caused by a dominant gene change in just one parent. This is called an autosomal dominant single-gene disorder and can cause things like Neurofibromatosis type 1 and Huntington’s Disease. In other cases, both parents must have changes in the same gene to cause disease. This is called a single-gene autosomal recessive disorder. Genetic conditions caused by changes in both parents’ genes include Cystic fibrosis, Spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), Tay-Sachs Disease, and Sickle-cell anemia.

Common diseases that we often consider to be highly hereditary actually have a complicated inheritance pattern. Usually, these diseases take more than inheriting a single gene change. Although diseases are influenced by genetics, things like lifestyle, diet, alcohol intake, exercise, and environment are all factors as well.

10 common and complex hereditary health issues:

  1. Arthritis
  2. Spina bifida
  3. Heart disease
  4. Alzheimer’s disease
  5. Cancer
  6. Thyroid disorders
  7. Diabetes
  8. High blood pressure
  9. Parkinson’s disease
  10. Multiple sclerosis

Genetic Testing

If you are worried you are a carrier for a recessive disorder, have inherited disease(s) yourself, or have a concerning family health history, genetic testing may be a good option for you.

It’s becoming increasingly more common for those who want children to visit with a genetic counselor beforehand. Genetic counselors can break down your family history, screen for certain genetics that increase your risk of inherited disease and determine the extent of your risk. They can also help you comprehend the risks your children may inherit, as well as offer support and resources to make you feel more prepared.

Power is knowledge! Don’t let your health take a back seat. Share this article with your family, or plan to talk about your family’s health history at your next gathering!