In the Fall edition of the Cleveland Clinic Genomic Medicine Institute Newsletter Dr. Charis Eng highlights the importance of Genetic Counseling and Family Health History. She encourages everyone to take time this month to learn about and document their family health history.

Why is Family Health History Important?

Did you know that your risk for a disease may be 2-3 times higher than normal if it runs in your family? Sharing your family health history with your physician can help identify early warning signs of disease. Therefore, knowing your family’s health history can provide an opportunity to personalize your healthcare to reduce your risk of disease with appropriate treatments or preventative measures.

Who’s History do I need?

The general rule for family health history is three generations of family members. Start with gathering information from your immediate family – parents, siblings and children. Then, if possible, ask grandparents for their information. You can also contact aunts and uncles and other blood relatives. 

If you are adopted and do not have access to your birth family’s health history then discuss any health concerns that you have with your healthcare provider. And start tracking your health conditions so that if you have children, you can pass the record on to them. 

What information do I need?

Talking about health conditions might not come naturally for some family members. Explain why you want to gather the information, offer to share the family history and remember to respect their privacy. You can begin by asking about some of the common conditions passed down through families like heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis, mental disorders or substance abuse.

You will want to start a record for each family member. Write down:

  • Relationship to you
  • Gender
  • Age, if living / Cause and age at death, if deceased
  • Known diseases or medical conditions (when symptoms began or disease was diagnosed)
  • Any medications regularly taken
  • Any surgeries or hospitalizations
  • Smoking, exercise and dietary habits

When gathering family health history even incomplete information is still useful to your doctor. Some families will have a storyteller that is able to share partial histories of many family members. You can ask them questions such as:

  • How old was my relative when they died, and what was the cause of death?
  • Are there health problems that run in the family?
  • Is there a history of pregnancy loss or birth defects in my family?
  • What allergies do people in my family have?
  • What is my ethnicity? (Some conditions are common among certain ethnicities.)

How do I Record the Details?

Write down or electronically document the health information that relatives provide.  You can use the Cleveland Clinic Collection Form to record information as you gather it from each family member. You can also use the electronic Surgeon General Collection Tool to document and save family history and see a family tree of health issues.

What to do with the Information

Share your family health history with your doctor at your next appointment. Your doctor can use it to identify potential health risks and recommend lifestyle changes to reduce your chances of developing hereditary conditions. The genes you were born with can’t be changed but you can take the initiative to adopt healthier habits, complete appropriate routine screenings or test for conditions you may be at risk for developing.

Start asking questions today! Knowing your family health history is the best way to manage your own health.

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