Family Health History: Genetics, DNA Testing and Your Health

Your family health history can provide you with information to manage your own health.

Why Does Your Doctor Ask for It?

All those questions about your relatives' health conditions can seem like a bother, but they help her know what to be on the lookout for with you. For example, if your father has high blood pressure, she might want to keep a closer eye on yours. Both nature (your genes) and nurture (your family's lifestyle) can have an effect on your health -- and you get both from your parents.

Tell your doctor about illnesses in blood relatives, ages when problems appeared, and causes of death.

What Does Your Doctor Need to Know?

You should tell him about any ongoing conditions (like diabetes or asthma) or serious illnesses (like cancer or a stroke) your parents, grandparents, and siblings have or had and how old they were when the health problem started. If any of them have passed away, let your doctor know their cause of death and how old they were when they died. He also may ask about things like your family's lifestyle or diet, because relatives tend to have these in common.

Genetic predisposition doesn't mean you will get conditions your relatives have.

What Health Conditions Run in Families?

If a close relative had a certain condition or illness, that doesn't mean you'll get it -- your chances may just be higher than other people's. Some issues that can be passed down include:

People who are of certain races may be more likely to suffer from certain conditions.

Does My Ethnicity Matter?

Your doctor may ask about your race because people who have roots in certain parts of the world are more likely to have some conditions. For example, African-Americans have a higher chance of having sickle cell anemia, and Jewish people from Eastern Europe are more likely to be born with Tay-Sachs disease.

Ask relatives and go through baby books and other memorabilia to find out about your family health history.

How Do I Get Information?

If you don't know much about your close relatives' health, find some time to ask about it. If they can't help you, talk to other family members -- aunts, uncles, or cousins -- to see what you can find out. And you might find some family trees, baby books, or other keepsakes that could be useful.

The U.S. Surgeon General's office provides a family medical tree you can share with your relatives and doctor.

Help Online

The U.S. Surgeon General's office has an easy way for you to collect this kind of information. It's called My Family Health Portrait. It helps you make a kind of family medical tree that you can share with relatives and download to take to your doctor.

Close relatives are allowed to obtain copies of death certificates and medical records in many states.

Getting Records

If you have questions your relatives can't answer, death certificates or medical records can give you specifics like age at death, cause of death, and ethnic background. The rules are different for each state, but close family members are often allowed to order copies of these. Obituaries -- often posted online -- also may have some of this information.

There are companies that can help research your family tree.

Ancestry Research

If you don't know much about your relatives and don't have time to research it on your own, there are companies that can help fill out your family tree. Once you know the names of your relatives, you can try to contact them or find obituaries or death certificates if they've passed away.

DNA testing can give you more information about conditions you may pass down to your children.

Genetics

You can go a step further if you get your genes tested, sometimes called DNA testing. Typically, you send a sample of your saliva to a company and they send you a report. This can tell if you're more likely to get certain diseases or pass problem genes to your children.

Tell your doctor what you do know about your family history even if you don't have all the information.

What If I Don't Have the Right Information?

You may not have all the answers, and that's OK. Just talk to your doctor about the information you do have or tell her that you don't know much about your family health history. She can help you sort through it and maybe even tell you where else to look. Even if you're missing some facts, any information you have can be useful.

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REFERENCES:

  • CDC: "Family Health History During Pregnancy," "Family Health History: The Basics," "Genetics Basics," "Family Health History and Your Child."
  • Georgia Department of Public Health: "Death Records."
  • National Institutes of Health: "Understanding Genetics: A New York, Mid-Atlantic Guide for Patients and Health Professionals."
  • NIHSeniorHealth: "Creating a Family Health History."
  • NIH Genetics Home Reference: "What is a gene mutation and how do mutations occur," "How is genetic testing done?" "Why are some genetic conditions more common in particular ethnic groups?" "Why is it important to know my family medical history?" "Huntington disease."
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: "My Family Health Portrait."
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