How collecting family medical history can help lower your risk for genetic conditions

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GREENVILLE, S.C. (WSPA) – According to the National Institute of Health, knowing your family’s medical history can not only reveal warning signs of a genetic condition, but it can also provide health care providers with information so they can recommend treatment and assess and possibly reduce risk.

It also said knowing your family’s history can help improve lifestyles to reduce risk and inform a woman of certain genes she has before pregnancy.

Bon Secours St. Francis nurse Elizabeth Lacy said three common examples of conditions with a genetic component include diabetes, cardiovascular disease and several cancers, including breast cancer, prostate cancer and colorectal cancers.

She said the risk for some of those conditions can be lowered by making certain lifestyle changes such as frequent exercise and a healthy diet, especially for those who have close family members with diabetes.

“Even if they have risk factors for different things and a strong family history, it’s not a foregone conclusion that you will develop that condition. [If] both parents have diabetes, yes you’re at an increased risk, but if you implement those lifestyle changes and really get on top of it, especially at a young age, you can decrease your risk of developing the condition and at least push it back many years.”

She went on to explain how knowing your family’s medical history could help lower your risk for cardiovascular disease.

“African Americans and Hispanics have an increased risk for heart disease and diabetes. People who know they have a strong family history of cardiovascular disease can implement lifestyle changes. Studies have shown that if you have a strong family history, your risk for cardiovascular disease, so heart attack, strokes, almost doubles, but you can implement changes that will actually reduce that risk by 50 percent. If you smoke, stop. If you don’t smoke, don’t start. Attaining a healthy weight and maintaining a healthy weight. Exercise…. all of those can mitigate your risk factors.”

To gather your family history, she recommended first asking parents and siblings to share their histories with you, then moving on to grandparents, aunts and uncles.

This conversation can be awkward, she said, but she suggested being respectful and explaining that it could benefit multiple family members.

“Get all the information you can, starting with first degree relatives. Your parents and your siblings. Those are the ones that have the greatest risk for you, then going from there to your grandparents, aunts and uncles. You can ask during typical conversation if people are up for that. Sometimes if they’re not, you can even make up a health history, just a sheet, to distribute to family members if they’re willing to fill that out for you,” she said. “That’s something that you can then distribute to other family members and it’s just a good family health history that everybody can refer to.”

Lacy recommended asking what conditions or diseases family members have, the ages of diagnosis, how many family members have had the same ones and what surgeries or treatments they’ve had. She said noting which side of the family a disease is found is often helpful.

“Have there been heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, any types of genetically inherited diseases? If you have one family member with breast cancer, your risk will go up but if you have 3 or 4, much higher risk.”

She stressed that noting the age of diagnosis can be crucial to your health.

“Colorectal cancers, for example, usually is with older people, but if you have a father or mother who was diagnosed with colorectal cancer, say in their 30s or 40s, your risk really skyrockets,” she warned. “That’s an important thing to let your healthcare provider know, because that’s going to affect some of the screenings that you have done, the timing of the screening and potentially the frequency. It’s going to help you know what screenings you need and what screenings to get earlier. A lot of times, especially if you bring out the cancers, like colorectal cancer, those are conditions where if you wait to see if you have warning signs, like if you have blood in your stool, for example, it’s too late. It’s already progressed.”

The National Institute of Health recommended asking family members the following questions:

  1. What is your ethnic background?
  2. Where do you live?
  3. Where were you born?
  4. How old were you or your relative when they developed the medical condition(s)?
  5. How many people in your family have had the same conditions or diseases?
  6. Have you or any of your family members been tested for genetic mutations (cell changes)?
  7. How old were your deceased relatives when they died, and how did they die?
  8. What diseases or medical conditions have you had?

The NIH suggested choosing one family member to collect all the health information from various relatives or having each relative fill out their own health record. It said you can also create a checklist that is organized by medical condition.

Finally, Lacy said genetic testing with a genetic counselor can be helpful, especially for women who are planning a pregnancy or those who were adopted, but did say that when undergoing genetic testing, it could cause an increase in anxiety.

“They’ll go through a very thorough health history with you… it can help you know what is your risk? If you know you have a strong family history of a certain condition, talk to your gynecologist about [if] you want to test for that and find out what your risk is of passing that on to a baby. If the pregnancy has already occurred, it does allow you to get things lined up.”

The National Institute of Health also said that adopted children or children of sperm or egg donations may be able to access health records through the original adoption or donation agencies.

Keeping a record of your family’s medical history can also benefit your child’s health, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. After gathering records, it recommended that you discuss family health history concerns with your child’s doctor.

The U.S. Surgeon General has an online tool to collect family histories called “My Family Health Portrait.”

To submit a health topic for our series, click here.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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