These days, there is a lot of attention being paid to genetic testing and whole genome sequencing. While these are becoming powerful tools in medicine, we should not overlook an old tool that is underutilized and can give us a lot of the same information: The Family Medical History. In fact, genetics plays a role in 9 of the 10 leading causes of death in the U.S. so, be proactive and help your physician obtain an accurate and detailed family history for you.
When collecting a family medical history, ask about the cause of death of older relatives such as grandparents or great aunts and uncles. If the answers given are vague, ask a parent if they have copies of death certificates and look for yourself (although listed causes of death are notoriously inaccurate). Here is a partial list of conditions to query your relatives about:
- Breast cancer or ovarian cancer (especially before age 45)
- colon cancer or polyps
- skin cancer
- Heart disease (especially before age 60)
- Stroke (especially before 65)
- Heart valve troubles or arhythmias
- Deep Venous Thrombosis (DVT) or blood clot
- high blood pressure
- kidney disease or failure
- emphysema or other lung diseases in non-smokers
- thyroid disease (especially Graves disease)
- diabetes (juvenile or adult)
- age-related blindness (macular degeneration or glaucoma)
- dementia (Alzheimer’s)
- inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn’s or Ulcerative Colitis
- Celiac disease
- bleeding Disorders such as hemophelia or Von Wildebrand’s Disease
- allergies to medications or reactions to anesthesia.
Although not always comfortable, ask about addictions such as alcoholism or other drug dependence too. Some mental illnesses are known to have a strong genetic component such as:
- schizophrenia and bipolar disorder
- alcoholism or other addictions
While not all of these conditions are entirely preventable, most of them are either treatable or can be modified by lifestyle choices. Finally, having a detailed and accurate family medical tree will help your medical team make better diagnoses and deliver safer care.
Complete a Family Medical Tree here.
- Enter your family health history.
- Learn about your risk for conditions that can run in families.
- Print your family health history to share with family or your health care provider.
- Save your family health history so you can update it over time.