5 Things to Pay Attention to in your Family History

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?

When you have the chance to gather health information from family, what should you focus on?
  1. 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?

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

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, You can also visit 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.

"Hey Brianne, which ancestry test do you recommend?"

The number one question I get from family, friends, and colleagues is this:

"Hey Brianne, which ancestry test do you recommend?"

It's a simple question with a complex answer. Some people have blogged about the options (here and here) or written books. Others have put together comparison charts (here and here). Some groups have posed questions (here and here) not to answer the question but to give you more to think about before you decide.

After reading through all of these sources, you still might not know which test is best for you! The answer won't be the same for everyone, so there is no one-size-fits-all. This can be rather disappointing to those who are hoping for a simple expert opinion and straight shot to the right answer. 

But no despairing because I have some solid advice. Before you order a test kit, take some time to learn what ancestry tests can provide in generalThis 30-minute free webinar in which I talk the fastest I've ever talked in my life is a great starting point! Once you figure out your priorities and get a sense of what ancestry tests can and do provide, you'll have a better sense of what you are hoping to gain personally from the testing. 

All of this can feel like a lot to navigate, which is why I want you to hire me to help you!

I enjoy working one-on-one with individuals so much. I get the chance to guide clients to a test - or help them set up a strategy for testing at multiple companies - that puts them in the driver's seat. Clients are aware of and in charge of what happens to their DNA and data and what types of information they get back from testing. We make the test or tests fit around the client's needs, rather than letting the marketing tactics of a testing company make the decision for the client. 

Helping people become informed consumers before they test is the best and most rewarding part of my job, and I wish I could do more of it. 

My recent offering of one-time "Which Test to Choose?" consults has proven to be very well-received. These are 45-minute phone calls (or video chats). We can talk about ancestry, genealogy, and health components to consumer test options. You guide the conversation so your questions get answered. 

Think this might be for you? You can schedule your session online. I'd love to work with you!