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The Importance Of Knowing Your Family History

Eating healthy, exercising, and not smoking is good for all of us. It's probably hard to find many people who don't know that. But what most people may not realize is that our family histories can be strong influences on disease risk. Common medical issues such as heart disease, arthritis, diabetes, and cancer can run in families. While we cannot change our genetics, knowing about them may help to reduce the risk of developing health problems. Of course everyone's family history of disease is different. Features that may indicate a familial or hereditary condition include:
• onset at an earlier age than expected
• the same or related conditions in more than one close relative
• combinations of related conditions within a family (such as breast and ovarian cancer)
• disease that is present in a person who is of the opposite sex of who is generally affected, such as breast cancer in a man

While we cannot change our genetics, knowing about them may help to reduce the risk of developing health problems.

Janice Berliner, 2019

If your family has one or more of these features, the history may hold important clues about your risk for disease. It's possible you might benefit from lifestyle changes and screening tests. There are direct-to-consumer (DTC) tests out there that can sometimes, in some circumstances, help you with this. But I would caution that there is not much data to support the tests they offer, at least not yet. Please see my DTC blog post for more information (janiceberliner.com). Of course, a genetics professional will be in a better position to determine whether you have an increased risk and what, if anything, can be done about it.

In November 2004, the U.S. Surgeon General and the Department of Health and Human Services launched a national public health campaign called the Family History Initiative (now called My Family Health Portrait, https://www.cdc.gov/genomics/famhistory/knowing_not_enough.htm). It was announced in time to coincide with Thanksgiving, when families are often together, and encouraged families to learn more about their health histories.

If you think you have, or are at risk for, an inherited form of disease, genetic testing may help determine if you or your family members are at risk. Even with inherited forms of disease, you can take steps to reduce your risk, so it is worth knowing. Even if you don't have a history of a particular health problem in your family, you may still wish to explore whether you could be at increased risk due to your lifestyle, personal medical history, or even family members who died young, before they had a chance to develop chronic conditions such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, or cancer.

Bottom line: you cannot change your genes, but you can change unhealthy behaviors such as smoking, inactivity, and poor eating habits that may increase your risk for cancer, heart disease and other conditions. Just because it runs in your family does not mean you will succumb to it as well. Sometimes the best thing you can do is pursue screening tests, like mammograms and colonoscopies, that can detect disease at an early stage, when they are most treatable. Screening can also indicate risk factors, such as high cholesterol and hypertension, which are treatable. So at the Thanksgiving or Christmas table, be sure to ask questions. Talk to your parents, grandparents, siblings, children, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and cousins. Ask them about any major medical conditions, causes of death, and age of disease onset or death. You can also look at death certificates and family medical records, if you can get your hands on them. Some families write this type of information in their family bibles, so you might check there as well. You may be surprised at what you'll find!
To find a genetic counselor near you who can help, go to nsgc.org and click on "find a counselor."


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