Three questions for you:
- Do you know anything about your family health history?
- Do you know why family health history is so important?
- Why should you care?
Anna Cisler, a Marshfield Clinic Health System genetic counselor, can help you answer those questions.
Genetic counselors like Cisler meet with individuals or families that have a genetic condition or suspected condition based on family health history. They explain what it means to the person or family and its impact on current and future care. They also collaborate with doctors and others to support that care.
“We don’t always have answers right away about an underlying genetic cause,” Cisler said, “but we help work through the unknown and uncertainty.”
What can help them help you is your family health history. This is a record of diseases and health issues in your family – chronic health conditions and other significant health issues – that helps family and their medical teams that provide care.
“That knowledge could someday help doctors help you manage your health and give family members important health clues that could benefit them, too,” Cisler said. “You can’t change your genes but in many cases, knowing about family health concerns allows for being proactive. Or there may be a medical condition that can’t be treated or prevented but knowing it could occur in the future can help people be more planful now.”
Where to begin
You share genetic traits with your family, like hair and eye color, height, weight and behaviors. Risk for diseases like asthma, diabetes, cancer, osteoporosis, stroke, heart, high cholesterol, thyroid issues and high blood pressure also can run in families. Knowing information about hereditary diseases, environmental conditions and lifestyle can put your health puzzle pieces together.
Where to go from there
The sooner and the more you know the better, so check to see if a family member has already started a history. If not, talk to relatives about their health and write it down. Or consider using online tools, like the Surgeon General’s web-based My Family Health Portrait.
You’ll want information about your first-, second- and third-degree family members – your parents, siblings, half-siblings, children, grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews.
A good opportunity to consider doing this genetic sleuthing is at family gatherings, Cisler explained, and it’s important to write it all down.
Learn about their major medical conditions, age when a disease was diagnosed, cause of death and the age at death. For example, note when and at what age a family member was diagnosed with cancer and the type of cancer he was diagnosed with. If accessible, you could look at death certificates or medical records, too, for clues.
Cognitive and mental health are just as important as physical health so it is important to ask about that history, too. Examples include any history of developmental delays like walking or talking at a later age, learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorder or mental health issues like depression, anxiety, schizophrenia or neurocognitive problems.
Talk with your medical team
Collect these details before visiting your doctor and take a written history with you. You may not know everything but sharing what you know can help your doctor plan your care. Also, update information regularly and share what you’ve learned with your family and doctor.
“Having this information about family health history will help providers improve the chance of identifying an individual or family that may benefit from a genetic evaluation. Results of the genetic evaluation could be important in determining care going forward,” Cisler said. “For example, if a genetic condition or risk is identified there could be conversations about how best to manage and screen for the identified health risks. It then becomes another important piece of information to share with family and could impact their care as well.
“It’s about being proactive with knowledge and if a genetic risk is identified, taking available steps to maintain good health and increasing chances for early detection and intervention should additional symptoms or complications occur.”
Also, Cisler said, it’s never too late to start a family health history.
“It’s long term as a process but it’s something good to start now to have for generations down the road,” she said.