7/1/2011: Does it run in your family?

Does it run in your family?

It is often noticed that characteristics such as curly hair, eye color and dimples are passed on in families. And while we share genes for these characteristics with our family members, we also share genes that make us susceptible to developing conditions such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer.

Your family history is one of the strongest factors that affect your risk of developing health problems. While you cannot change your genes, knowing what your family’s medical history holds can help reduce the risk to develop these conditions. If you know you have an increased risk to develop a health problem there are steps you can take to delay or prevent their occurrence?. These steps include changing your lifestyle such as eating habits, physical activity and smoking. Medications and screening tests can often be used to reduce risk and detect diseases at an early stage as well. Screening tests often used include mammograms, colorectal cancer screening, monitoring of cholesterol and blood pressure, and vision or hearing testing.

Talking to Your Family

Everyone’s family history is different and you have to take action to find out yours. Talk to your family about their health history, write it down and update it every few years. Sometimes asking about health history can make people uncomfortable. Let your family know that you are not being nosy but that talking may help all of you identify pieces of family history that may be important to know for your health care.

Start with family members most closely related to you (parents, siblings and children). Next go on to second degree relatives (grandparents, aunts, uncles, and half-siblings) and if possible, collect information about your cousins, great-grandparents, great-aunts and great-uncles.

What to Look For

When talking about your family’s medical history, questions should include major medical conditions, causes of death, age at diagnosis and age at death. There are a few specific things that are important to note because they particularly signal an increased risk. These include:

  • Diseases that occur at an earlier age than expected
    • Examples include: breast or colon cancer before the age of 50, vision loss before the age of 55, or heart disease before the age of 50
  • Multiple close relatives with the same or related conditions
    • Examples include: colon and endometrial cancer, thyroid and colon polyps, breast and ovarian cancer, and diabetes and heart disease
  • Disease that does not usually affect a certain gender
    • Example: breast cancer in a male
  • Sudden death in someone who seemed healthy
  • Individuals with developmental delay and/or birth defects
  • Individuals or couples who have experienced 3 or more pregnancy losses or who have unexplained infertility
  • The presence of genetic conditions such as cystic fibrosis, hemophilia, sickle cell disease, or muscular dystrophy

Additional conditions to look for in your family include: depression, diabetes, cancer (note the specific type), kidney disease, hearing loss, heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, alcoholism, obesity, osteoporosis, physical abnormalities, stroke and vision loss.

Ethnic Background

It is also important to ask family members about your ethnic background in as much detail as possible. Many ethnic groups or individuals whose ancestors came from certain countries have specific conditions that occur in them more frequently than in other ethnic groups and screening for these conditions may be recommended.

After Gathering Family History

There are no “good” or “bad” genes. Having a family history of a disease does not mean you will necessarily develop it; however, your risk is increased and you have the most to gain by knowing your family history and taking actions to lower your risk. Once you have gathered your family history information take the information to your doctor. He or she can evaluate your history and determine what diseases you are at increased risk for and what actions can be taken to prevent or delay the onset of disease. Your doctor may also refer you to a specialist such as medical geneticist or genetic counselor for additional discussion. Sometimes genetic testing can be helpful in further defining what your risks are and what options you have for prevention and screening.

Where to Find More Information

You can find additional information at www.cdc.gov/Features/FamilyHistory/. There is also an online tool available to help you record the information at https://familyhistory.hhs.gov/fhh-web/home.action. You are also welcome to contact the Indiana Hemophilia and Thrombosis Center’s genetic counselor at 317-871-0000 to discuss further.

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