06/21/2021 | News release | Distributed by Public on 06/21/2021 19:35
If possible, aim to collect your family health history before visiting your primary care provider and take it with you. Start by asking your close family members, such as your parents and siblings, about their disease history and lifestyle habits. You should ask about any serious diseases, and at which age they were diagnosed. Pay special attention to conditions diagnosed prior to age 65 or so, since conditions diagnosed later in life are much less likely to have a genetic basis. For example, if you have a grandparent who was diagnosed with colon cancer in their 80s, that is very unlikely to translate to increased risk for you. Consider using family gatherings as an opportunity to work on compiling this history together. Keep in mind, however, that some people may feel more uncomfortable disclosing personal medical information in a group setting and prefer a one-on-one conversation.
In general, the more information you receive, the more complete a picture you and your provider will have about your personal risk factors for genetic conditions. Your parents, siblings, and children, and in some cases your grandparents, are the most important family members to start with. Information from your extended family (like your aunts, uncles, cousins) can be helpful but is less likely to be predictive of your health risk; the more distant the family member is, the less likely you are to share genes with them. Information about the health of your spouse or partner, step-family members, or adoptive family members, while irrelevant to your own genetic risk, may also be of interest, especially if they have conditions that add stress to your life.
If you don't know or can't contact your blood relatives, it's still possible to create a family health history -- but you may need to do a little digging. For example, if you're adopted, your adoptive parent(s) may have received medical information at the time of your adoption. You can also seek out the adoption agency for adoption documents, which sometimes include birth families' health history. If those documents aren't available or they're not comprehensive enough to help and you were adopted through an open adoption, you may also be able to contact your birth parents or other birth relatives, if you're comfortable. Public documents, like birth and death certificates obtained through the county where you were born can also help.
If you're estranged from your family, reaching out for health information may be difficult or triggering. Any relatives you're comfortable or able to speak with could be a possible resource for health information. In some cases, however, getting your family history may even be unsafe. If you aren't able to get your family history, that's okay. Your primary care provider can still work with you to devise the best plan to keep you healthy. When contact isn't possible, you can also access public records like death certificates and obituaries, which often include a person's cause of death.
If you're not able to get the information you need, be honest with your doctor, who can suggest other ways to understand your health, such as ordering a genetic screening panel. It's okay if you don't know everything about your family's health history or don't have all the answers. Whatever you can share with your provider helps!
No matter how you get this important information, it's important to record and keep track of it for future use. Keep a simple journal or document, or try using the U.S. Surgeon General's portal, My Family Health Portrait, which allows you to easily share your family health history with your provider and relatives.