A routine visit to your primary care physician can be overwhelming. In addition to countless forms about insurance and privacy, endless questions about your medical history can be exhausting. A plethora of questions about your medical history is followed up by the health conditions of your closest relatives. While it may seem intrusive and laborious, the health conditions of your parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts and uncles can help them know what to be on the lookout for with you. For example, if your mother has high blood pressure, they might want to keep a closer eye on yours. Both nature (your genes) and nurture (your family’s lifestyle) can have an effect on your health -- and you get both from your parents.
It is important to disclose any ongoing conditions (like diabetes or asthma) or serious illnesses (like cancer or a stroke) your parents, grandparents, and siblings have or had and how old they were when the health problem started. If any of them have passed away, let your doctor know their cause of death and how old they were when they died. They also may ask about things like your family’s lifestyle or diet, because relatives tend to have these in common.
Just because a close relative had a certain condition or illness, that doesn’t necessarily mean you will have it. However, your chances are slightly higher than other people’s. Some health issues that can be passed down include:
Ethnicity refers to the cultures, customs and lifestyle choices of certain groups more than in the general population. Your doctor may ask about your race because people who have roots in certain parts of the world are more likely to have some conditions. For example, African-Americans have a higher chance of having sickle cell anemia and high blood pressure, Caucasians have a higher incidence of cystic fibrosis and Jewish people from Eastern Europe are more likely to carry the BRCA gene mutation and be born with Tay-Sachs disease.
Many people do not know much about their family medical history for a variety of reasons. If possible, ask your closest relatives about their health and the health of other family members such as; aunts, uncles, or cousins. If you’re lucky someone may have kept a family tree, baby books, or other keepsakes that could be of value. If that doesn’t work, there are other options in an internet age;
The U.S. Surgeon General’s office has an easy way for you to collect this kind of information. It’s called My Family Health Portrait. It helps you make a kind of family medical tree that you can share with relatives and download to take to your doctor.
Information about your relatives can often be found in death certificates or medical records such as age at death, cause of death, and ethnic background. The rules are different for each state, but close family members are often allowed to order copies of these. Obituaries, which are often posted online, may also have some information.
For those who don’t know much about your relatives and don’t have time to research it on your own, there are companies that can help fill out your family tree. Once you know the names of your relatives, you can try to contact them or find obituaries or death certificates.
For some, it may be helpful or necessary to have genetic or DNA testing performed. A conversation with your primary care physician will help make an informed decision.
Not everyone will be able to provide a thorough and comprehensive medical history for their physician. For example, adopted children or those who lost parents at an early age often lack access to a strong family history. Do your best to talk to your doctor about the information you do have or tell them that you don’t know much about your family health history. They can help you sort through it and maybe even tell you where else to look. Even if you’re missing some facts, any information you have can be useful.
SOURCES: WebMD; National Institutes of Health
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Paul J. Mackarey PT, DHSc, OCS is a Doctor in Health Sciences specializing in orthopaedic and sports physical therapy. Dr. Mackarey is in private practice and is an associate professor of clinical medicine at GCSOM