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Family medical history: uncovering your genetic blueprint

Dr. Violeta Mihailescu (second from right) takes a photo with her family.

While it may be common to hear, “You have your father’s eyes!” at a family reunion, it’s rarer to hear something like, “You definitely got your mother’s diabetes.” Although it’s not visible, your family’s medical history is a powerful tool that can help unlock secrets about your own health and risks for developing certain diseases. By taking the time to investigate and document your family’s health patterns, you can make proactive lifestyle choices, catch issues early, and enable your healthcare team to personalize screening and treatment plans. 

Tryon Medical Partners internal medicine specialist Dr. Mihailescu weighs in on why it’s important to know your family medical history, how you can collect the information you need, and how to most effectively share it with your healthcare team. 

Why it’s important to know your family medical history 

Put simply, family medical history is a record of the diseases and health conditions present in your family. You share not only genes, but also habits, behaviors, and similar environmental exposure with your family – all of which impact your health. An ideal family medical history would include first, second, and third-degree relatives.

  1. First-degree relatives are siblings, parents, and children.
  2. Second-degree relatives are half siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews.
  3. Third-degree relatives are first cousins, great grandparents, and great grandchildren. 

Dr. Mihailescu shares that it’s important to collect your family medical history and share it with your healthcare team so they can: 

  • Determine risks for certain diseases. For example, if you have a family history of heart problems, your care team will be on alert for your increased risk of cardiac symptoms.
  • Identify appropriate timing for screenings. If you have a family history of a certain cancer or condition, your recommended screening criteria may be different from someone without a family history. Knowing your history will help your care team make sure you’re on the appropriate schedule. 
  • Reduce the risk of disease-related complications. Through early detection and treatment of diseases, you can avoid any additional complications that could arise if left undiagnosed and untreated. 
  • Detect early symptoms for certain inherited diseases. What may be just an unusual symptom for some could be a sign of something far more serious in others. Knowing family medical history helps clinicians know what symptoms should raise a red flag for you, specifically.
  • Help with lifestyle changes to minimize risks and maintain health. Before you even begin to develop a condition, there are often preventive measures to be taken. By clueing your clinician in on what you may be at-risk for, they can guide different lifestyle choices to further decrease your risk. 

“Sharing your family health history can make a significant difference,” Dr. Mihailescu emphasizes. “If your clinician knows what to look for, they can guide you to make choices and get screenings that will allow you to live your healthiest life.” 

Your family health history checklist

It’s no easy feat to collect as much information as you can about family members’ pasts and present, especially when healthcare issues and outcomes can often be sensitive or difficult to discuss. To aid in your fact-finding, Dr. Mihailescu recommends the following family medical history checklist: 

Ask open-ended questions. 

It might be awkward at first, but often, the best way to obtain comprehensive information is to ask direct, open family health history questions. Dr. Mihailescu recommends questions like: 

  • “Why did grandpa die?”
  • “What is written on his death certificate?”
  • “How old was he when he was diagnosed?”
  • “Did anybody in his family have similar conditions?”

Have many conversations on a regular cadence.

To get a complete picture, use family gatherings where you have access to multiple relatives to talk about health history. Have these conversations regularly (annually, if you can) and be sure to share what you learn with other family members. When you are collecting this information, pay special attention to mentions of: 

“As you have these conversations, keep an ear out for repetition,” Dr. Mihailescu advises. “If you hear of multiple individuals impacted in several generations, disease at an earlier age than usual, or a close degree of relatedness, your ears should perk up.” 

Locate records.

In routine house clean up, look out for death certificates and medical records, which can be very helpful in having a comprehensive understanding. Dr. Mihailescu encourages locating this specific information: 

  • Name of the disease
  • Age of diagnosis
  • Age of death
  • Previous genetic testing (if any) 
  • Ethnic background 

Lean on the matriarch.

Frequently, the best source for family health history is the mother. Generally speaking, women tend to be more invested in obtaining family history, more communicative, and play the role of caregiver to elderly parents, which means they often join them for their office visits and witness discussions with clinicians.

“It can be especially important to look out for information that may be easily forgotten or not immediately available,” Dr. Michailescu notes. “For instance, siblings or relatives who passed away at a very young age. This is critical information that can often get lost.” 

When to share your family health history with your healthcare team 

In terms of sharing your family health history, it’s best to provide an update at every physical or annual wellness visit, especially with your primary care clinician. Because it is dynamic and ever-changing, it’s important to stay on top of the details and share as soon as you know anything more. 

If you think it’s time to update your primary care clinician with your family health history, use MedChat or call Tryon Medical Partners today.