UPDATED: Oct 19, 2019
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We all know that eating the right diet, getting enough sleep, doing exercise, and avoiding smoking can help us to reduce the risk of developing serious health conditions. But that still leaves out a major factor – genetics. Family history is an important part of every medical chart for a reason. It is a strong factor for conditions such as stroke, diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer. If someone in your family has one of these conditions, the chances are that you have a high risk for it yourself.
- US National Library of Medicine: What does it mean if a disorder seems to run in my family?
- National Human Genome Research Institute: Genomic medicine and healthcare
- Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion: Determinants of health
Family History is Important to Your Health
Knowing what we have a higher risk for can help us to take extra measures to prevent the condition or avoid it becoming worse than it needs to be. This is why finding out the medical history of each family member is important. It’s not just their medical history. It is yours too!
Why do we share such a strong chance of getting the same health conditions as our family members? Not only do we share the same genes as them, and thus the likelihood of developing certain illnesses, but we often also share the same habits, environment, and lifestyle, all of which may contribute to the development of a health condition. This means that you should be screened more frequently for the conditions in your family in addition to making lifestyle changes to attempt to prevent or limit the illnesses.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Family health history
- Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services: Genetic Disease and Early Childhood
- National Cancer Institute: The genetics of cancer
Researching Your Family's Genealogy
The first step to researching your family’s genealogy is compiling what you already know. Make a list of family members including brothers, sisters, cousins, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, and grandparents.
If there are parts of the family tree that you don’t know much about, ask your family members who are closer to those parts. Take notes on what they say so you can include them in the next step.
- Penn State: Genealogy and family history
- James Madison University: Genealogy
- National Archives: Start your genealogy search
Creating a Family Tree
Start building a family tree. Start with yourself and work upwards, creating branches for each family member. Some family members may have fewer branches than others, depending on how many siblings or children they have. As you build your tree, you will start to see the genetic lineage and how certain traits come from different branches of your family. We will discuss how medical traits are an important part of this later on in this article.
Once you have learned all you can from family, consider branching out to a genealogy database online. Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org offer everyone the chance to build their own free family tree and connect it with others. There are also other services for some families and people from regions of the country that have studied their genealogy extensively. It depends on who your ancestors were!
If your family tree still seems to be missing some important branches at this point, consider a people finder and ancestry DNA service. They will collect your autosomal DNA and match it to others in their database. You may find second, third, and fourth genetic cousins that you never knew existed! This is a great chance to reach out and learn more about the people who share your genetics.
- Cornell University Library: Genealogy: Finding your Ancestors Online
- Stanford Libraries: Genealogy
- FamilySearch.org: Main page
Adding Medical Histories to Your Family Tree
Follow the same process that you did when you first started forming your family tree.
First, collect together all of the information that you already know. What medical conditions do you have? What conditions do your parents and siblings have?
Next, talk to your family to learn more. Ask about their medical histories to see if there are areas you don’t know about. Ask about who they think they may have inherited their conditions from. Most importantly, listen and take notes!
Begin attaching the medical histories to your family tree. You may find that certain parts of your family have one condition, such as heart disease, while a different part may carry another condition entirely, such as diabetes.
If there is still information missing, branch out. Your long lost cousins may be willing to talk about their health and other traits, especially if they are interested in yours as well. It never hurts to find out, and what you learn may help you to prevent a serious condition from ever becoming severe. One discussion about genetically carried health conditions with a family member may end up improving the entire family’s health outlook.
- US National Institutes of Health: My family health portrait
- MedlinePlus: Family history
- Utah Department of Health: Family health history toolkit
Are you interested in learning more about your family medical history and genealogy? Check out the following resources on your way to better health:
The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases has an excellent article on Using the world around you to stay healthy and fit. It is never too early or too late to begin to take control of your wellbeing through living a healthy lifestyle.
If you don’t know what questions to ask family members about their health, this form from the March of Dimes may be the perfect place to start. Their Family health history form asks the same questions your doctor would and can help to get the dialogue with family members started while giving you a place to jot down your notes!
The Genetic Alliance has a great Guide to family health history if you are just getting started. It answers all of the common questions regarding what is or is not a genetic condition as well as how to go about collecting your family’s health information.
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