Rare Disease Report

How Well Do You Know Your Family? Tips for Compiling A Family Medical History

MAY 26, 2017
Morgan Simmons, MSc Candidate, Emory University and Intern at ThinkGenetics
Scientists have long maintained that they can track human origins back to one region in Africa. From there, our human ancestors spread up to Europe and outwards to settle in the different continents. Quite literally, the rest is history.
Fast forwarding to today, many of us can ramble off several countries that our more recent ancestors originated.  I know that my grandfather’s parents traveled to the United States from a small island off the coast of Naples, Italy in the early 20th century. They passed through Ellis Island in the Upper New York Bay and had their name changed before settling down in the Northeast. 
I know this information because it is often talked about in our family and has become an oral tradition.  While I use ancestry as an example, the same can be said about a family’s medical or genetic health history.
Families have many things in common, including their genes, environment, and lifestyle. Together, these factors can give clues to medical conditions that may run in the family. 
By identifying patterns of chronic diseases and genetic conditions among relatives, healthcare professionals can determine whether an individual, other family members, or future generations may be at an increased risk of developing a certain condition. 
Knowing one’s family medical history and sharing it with their doctor can allow a person to take steps to reduce their risk. 
Regular checkups or testing for people with a family history of a medical condition may also be recommended. 
Family health history is so important that in 2004, the United States Surgeon General launched a national campaign to encourage all families to learn more about their health histories.
Okay, so you might be wondering how to start compiling and recording your family health history.  Here are some tips and questions to get you started:
  • A three-generation family history is usually sufficient, but if you know more, feel free to write it down. Three generations would include you and your siblings, your parents, your aunts and uncles, and your grandparents and their brothers and sisters.
  • While you can record this information in any way that’s easiest for you, consider drawing out a family tree to help visualize everything!
  • Did anyone in the family have any chronic diseases (cancer, heart disease, diabetes, etc.)? How old were they when they were diagnosed? If it was cancer, what type of cancer was it?
  • Did anyone in the family have any health conditions (high blood pressure, high cholesterol, etc.)? How old were they when they were diagnosed?
  • How old were family members when they passed away? What caused their death? Did anyone pass away in childhood or early in life?
  • Did anyone have mental illness or intellectual disabilities?
At your next family event, remember these gatherings can be the perfect opportunity to talk about and collect this type of information. I encourage you to put down the smartphones, take a rest from the political banter, and just talk to your family. Talking about family members who have passed away may seem sad, but perhaps it could be an opportunity to relive the happy memories. 
Keep those stories alive. Take photos, videos, or audio recordings of your family. Cherish the memories.

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