understanding family health history

pathways to modern aging

understanding family health history

As many of us anticipate a holiday season separated from our family members, the connections between family have become more valuable than ever. In terms of health, understanding our genetic and familial history is very important when making health decisions. Genetics can make one predisposed to some diseases and conditions, while the mental, physical, and emotional history of one’s family can help to inform us on our predispositions in non-genetic aspects of health.

Genetic History

Diseases like cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s are often hereditary, meaning that predisposition to developing them can be passed on through genes. High risk of breast cancer, for instance, can be passed down generations. In cases of more ubiquitous diseases, one biological family member developing Type 2 diabetes may not indicate a genetic predisposition to it, but two, three, or four biological family members developing Type 2 diabetes may indicate a hereditary risk for the disease. 

Other diseases that are considered to carry a hereditary risk are:

  • Asthma
  • Depression
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Dementia
  • Sickle cell anemia
  • More…

Non-genetic History

Yet, as with the above example of Type 2 diabetes, sometimes non-genetic familial history can contribute to health risks. If you grew up around family members that all smoke, you are at higher risk of exposure to second-hand smoke as a child, which can cause health problems later on. Additionally, if smoking is a social norm in your family, you may be more inclined to pick up the habit yourself. 

In a different case, you may have had a grandparent unknowingly exposed to a harmful environmental factor, such as veterans exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam war. Those exposed to Agent Orange were found to be at higher risk of developing cancer and other, related diseases. Although there is no definitive answer to whether a family member’s exposure to Agent Orange will increase hereditary risk of cancer for grandchildren and great-grandchildren born post-exposure, other forms of environmental factors can cause such risks, such as lead or radiation exposure.

What Information Do I Need to Collect?

According to the Mayo Clinic, some important pieces of information to collect about your family members are:

  • Sex 
  • Date of birth
  • Ethnicity, including the country of origin if your family member was not born/did not live in the United States
  • Medical conditions
  • Mental health conditions, including alcoholism or other substance abuse
  • Pregnancy complications, including miscarriage, stillbirth, birth defects or infertility
  • Age when each condition was diagnosed
  • Lifestyle habits, including diet, exercise and tobacco use
  • For deceased relatives, age at the time of death and cause of death

This information should be collected about as many family members as possible, including members in your generation, like siblings and cousins, and generations that follow you, like children, nieces, nephews, and grandchildren.

Of course, not everyone has access to information about their biological family members. In cases of adoption, separation, and estrangement, information like the above can be difficult to find. 

In these cases:

  • The CDC recommends the My Family Health Portrait tool from the US Surgeon General to track your family health history with what information you have, which can then be built upon over time through the use of birth certificates and other publicly available documents.
  • Additionally, in cases of adoption, the CDC also recommends contacting your or your loved one’s adoption agency or utilizing the Child Welfare Information Gateway to learn more about biological relatives. 

What If I Can’t Find This Information?

Family health history is important, but it does not make or break your health outlook. While your genetic history can be used to prevent the development of certain diseases, in its absence there are few solutions beyond what is referred to as genetic testing. Genetic testing allows a doctor to see an individual’s genetic markers, which can indicate a predisposition to a certain health condition. 

However, genetic testing is not something to be taken lightly. As Self.com writer Fiona Tapp describes in her journey to find health information about her birth mother, genetic testing should only be done through the proper channels. Third-party companies that provide genetic testing products are not currently held to the same ethical standards as medical professionals, which is a risk to both personal privacy and to the accuracy of the results. Once your genetic information is shared with a third party, the privacy of that information is murky. Additionally, should you receive results from a third party, it is unlikely you will be able to make accurate judgments on the information provided.

For trusted genetics and genetic testing information, visit Genome.gov, where the National Human Genome Research Institute houses information about the Human Genome Project.

The Big (Family) Picture

If you have access to your family health history, utilize it! Though it may seem like a Herculean undertaking to collect, it does not have to be a solitary effort. You and your family members can collaborate to collect information across generations, which will serve to help current and future family members. 

With said information, you and your doctor can make educated decisions on your health. If you do have a hereditary risk for certain diseases, knowing ahead of time can give you and your doctor a chance to take preventative steps. 

If you do not have access to your family health history, there is no need to worry. The purpose of family health history is only to support your health choices, not perfectly predict your entire health journey. Regardless of where you fall in terms of family health history, the best tool for avoiding harmful health conditions is you. With guidance and planning from your doctor, you can still take all of the recommended, preventative steps to protect you and your loved ones. 

If you are interested in collecting your family health history, consider talking to your doctor before the holiday season. Your primary care physician can share resources for collecting family health information, which could be a great way to connect with family members this holiday season and beyond.