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Genetics often play a big role in our individual health, and knowing your family medical history can be tremendously important. You can’t change your genetics, but simply knowing the realities of your situation and how your history might impact your risk for various conditions can go a long way. Here are some basics on who and how to ask, and why this medical history is important.
Family history is often one of the chief indicators that you might be at higher risk in a given area. It can be helpful for both common conditions like heart disease or cholesterol and rarer diseases – in fact, family history is often one of the first tools doctors use to determine the cause of mysterious symptoms that can’t be connected to a particular condition.
Risk of diseases can run in families, common conditions include asthma, diabetes, cancer and heart disease. Here are some of the situations regarding family history that might signal a concern:
For any of these situations, your family history could play a big role in identifying your disease risk, and may help you make some preventative lifestyle changes or receive relevant testing.
In most cases, genetic counselors who work with family medical histories will be looking for three generations of history to draw from. You should get information about grandparents, parents, siblings, first cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and any children. Make sure to ask about:
You can get this information at family gatherings where possible, and using death certificates or other documented family records in other cases. Once you have this information, you and your doctor can use it to determine your risk for certain conditions, and can potentially develop a plan for lifestyle changes or additional screening tests.
Even if your family history doesn’t indicate any major health problems or risks to you, there’s a chance you could still be at risk. It is possible there could be a disease history you’re unaware of or other factors influencing your risk, including lifestyle and personal history. It is also important to recognize certain family members may have been at risk for chronic conditions based on genetic factors, but may have died early for other reasons.
“Family History is Important for Your Health.” NCBI.. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK115560/
“Know the Facts: Learn Your Family Medical History to Improve Your Health.” The Mayo Clinic. https://individualizedmedicineblog.mayoclinic.org/2016/12/29/know-the-facts-learn-your-family-medical-history-to-improve-your-health-2/
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This information is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. You should always consult your doctor before making decisions about your health.