Some families and its members are more comfortable with sharing medical history information. In other families, it is harder to learn this information. Small family size, less communication about difficult subjects like health and illness, and lack of continued communication over time between relatives can make these challenging. When you have the chance to gather health information from family, what should you focus on?
Common conditions - Most conditions that people develop are complex, meaning they are caused by a combination of multiple genes, exposures in the environment, lifestyle choices, and aging. We can tease out the genetic factors for some of them and not for others. Look for patterns in your family: Does high cholesterol run in your family? Heart attacks? Have similar cancers popped up in multiple generations or in a group of siblings, for example?
Rare diseases - When we look at three or four generations of a family, most families will have at least one member who has a rare disease or has experienced a lengthy, complex medical history. We are finding new genetic causes for these situations every year. However, not everything genetic is also hereditary or a concern for other family members. The information you gather about a rare disease in the family (its name and how the diagnosis was made, for example) can help to later determine if anyone else might be at risk.
Age of onset - The age at onset or diagnosis of a medical condition is often the most value-added piece of information. Your Aunt Sal may have developed breast cancer, but was she age 28 or age 68 when it happened? This can make a big difference to risks for others in the family. Take note of how old a family member was when they experienced a medical crisis or health issue, especially for neurologic, heart, and cancer-related issues.
Ethnicity - Some markers in your DNA can indicate ethnicity, some are associated solely with health risks, and some represent both at the same time. Belonging to a certain ethnic population can place you at higher risk of some conditions, especially if you’ve descended from a small, isolated ethnic group. Examples of this are Old World Amish, Ashkenazi Jewish, and French Canadian populations. Ethnic background alone isn’t a reason to meet with a genetic counselor, but expect it to come up during a discussion of family history.
Young death – “Young death” includes cases of sudden infant death, unexplained accidental deaths in children/young adults, and sudden cardiac events, like a heart attack in a young person. These issues can be seen to run in families, and now, we have some tests available to search for possible genetic causes. If you see this pattern in your family, schedule to meet with a genetic counselor to review your family history, talk about genetic testing options, and identify who is the best person in the family to test first.
Genetic counselors help sort out what conditions might have a stronger genetic component to them and determine if any testing is relevant and available. They also identify what rare diagnoses are of greater or lesser concern to others within a family. To partner with a genetic counselor to make your family medical history useful, reach out through my website, www.watersheddna.com. You can also visit www.aboutgeneticcounselors.com and use the “find a genetic counselor” search tool to search for a genetic counselor by area of specialty, hospital system/organization, and more.
This article originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Trail Living Magazine.