It's common for traits such as eye color, hair color, build or individual features to be passed down through families. But our physical features aren't the only things we can inherit and pass along to our children. Many illnesses or medical conditions, from depression to cancer, also run in families. Knowing your family's medical history can help you prepare for and perhaps avoid health problems.
Why it's important to know your family's medical history
Knowledge of your family's medical history can help you or your health care provider:
- Determine your risk for specific conditions
- Calculate your risk of passing conditions on to your children and identify other family members at risk
- Diagnose an illness or a medical condition
- Help you choose genetic or other medical tests
- Determine whether you would benefit from preventive measures against certain health conditions
- Create a plan for lifestyle changes that can improve your overall health
If you do have a family history of certain medical conditions, it doesn't mean that you or your children will definitely develop those conditions. Likewise, a lack of family history of genetic diseases does not mean you will not develop a condition or pass it along to your children. Your family medical history should be seen as another tool, along with regular checkups and screenings, for making good decisions about your health.
Conditions that have genetic links
A variety of illnesses and conditions have a genetic component and can be passed along bloodlines. These include the following:
- Heart disease, such as coronary artery disease, an irregular heartbeat, mitral valve prolapse or sudden death from a heart condition
- Certain cancers, especially breast, ovarian and prostate cancers
- Diabetes, particularly adult-onset diabetes
- Chromosomal disorders or birth defects, such as cleft lip and palate
- Alzheimer's disease
- High blood pressure
- Allergies to both environmental factors and medications
- Glaucoma, blindness, macular degeneration and other eye conditions
- Kidney disease, including polycystic kidneys
- Mental illness, such as depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia
- Infertility or miscarriage
- Learning disabilities and developmental delays
- Blood disorders, such as hemophilia, thalassemia and sickle cell anemia
- Metabolic disorders, such as phenylketonuria, homocystinuria and tyrosinemia
- Thyroid disorders
- Bone and joint disorders, such as osteoporosis or arthritis
- Gastrointestinal disorders, such as inflammatory bowel disease
- Female reproductive disorders, such as polycystic ovary disease, endometriosis, fibroids and irregular menses
- Sudden unexplained death, especially at a young age
Cancer and heart disease
Cancer and heart disease are two of the most commonly inherited illnesses. If you know that there is a history of either of these conditions in your family, it's important to let your health care provider know.
Certain cancers have been shown to have a strong familial link - particularly breast, ovarian and prostate cancers. For instance, if you are a woman and your mother, sister or grandmother is diagnosed with breast cancer, your own risk for breast cancer increases. If you are a man whose mother, sister or grandmother has breast cancer, your risk for prostate cancer increases. For both women and men, your risk increases further if two or more of these close family members has breast cancer. Age of onset is also important with some cancers. For example, if a family member developed breast cancer prior to menopause, your risk increases. Patterns that show up in your family, or even those that seem to skip generations, should still be noted and brought to your doctor's attention.
According to the American Heart Association, heredity is among the major factors linked to heart disease. Specifically, if one or both of your parents suffer some form of heart disease, you are more likely to develop heart disease. Heart disease risks are also tied to other inheritable risk factors, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes.
Knowing whether any of these or other conditions run in your family can help you understand your risk and take steps to decrease the possibility of developing a condition. For example, if you know that heart disease runs in your family, you will want to be extra vigilant about exercising, eating a heart-healthy diet and avoiding high blood pressure and cholesterol. Likewise, if cancer runs in your family, your doctor will want to make sure that you get regular screenings.
Genetic tests are typically only performed when there is an established family pattern of a disease or condition. Genetic testing can be useful for determining risk for certain cancers, neurological diseases, and chromosomal disorders. A genetic test involves a simple blood test from you (and sometimes from other family members) as well as questions about your family's medical history.
Testing for specific genes common to family members (such as BRCA1 or BRCA2, the genes found to be linked to breast and other cancers) is available, as is genetic counseling. For those who may be carriers of genetic or chromosomal disorders, genetic counseling can offer more specific information about your risks or any risk of passing a disorder on to your children.
If you don't have access to family medical information
If you are adopted or if you can't gather medical information about your family for other reasons, you can still be proactive about staying healthy. Tell your health care provider about your situation and share everything you do know about your background, including your race or ethnicity. People who are adopted should still be monitored for diseases associated with their ethnicity.
If possible, check adoption records to see if any information about the family's medical history is included in the records. Even if the adoption is a closed adoption, it may be possible to contact the adoption agency to see if any old or updated information about the biological parents and grandparents might be obtained.