Dec 28, 2022 - Health + Traits

Making Family Health History Work for You

Family Tree

Family members share DNA and have other things in common, like where they live, what they eat, or how active they are. All these factors can play a role in determining health, which makes knowing your family health history so important. It’s important to acknowledge that depending on family circumstances, not everyone has access to their family health history, but there is a lot of value in understanding how it can benefit you. 

So what do we mean when we refer to your family health history? This is an actual  record of current and past medical conditions for you, your biological family, and your healthcare provider to use to manage your health. 

Why is a family health history important?

This one is easy! 

Health conditions can run in families. Knowing your family health history can help a doctor, clinician, or other healthcare professional understand your risk of developing certain conditions. 

Family health history also helps them decide how often you need checkups and other preventative screenings. Some people, like 23andMe customers Mary and Tracy, have been inspired to make positive lifestyle changes after learning more about their family history.

What type of medical information matters?

During a genetic counseling session, gathering family health history is central. A genetic counselor might ask about relatives in four generations of your family. Starting with you, they might ask about your parents, grandparents, children, siblings, half-siblings, aunts, uncles, and first cousins. The names of any medical conditions and the general age of diagnosis are collected. 

If you are gathering this information yourself and you or someone in the family does not know the official medical term or exact ages when conditions were diagnosed, use your best guess. Family health history is kinetic. You can and should expect to update it over time. 

How do you talk to relatives about medical history?

Medical history can be a sensitive topic. It might be more challenging for some people and some families to talk about family health history. Read these tips we’ve gathered for how you can approach family health questions in a way that is both careful and considerate.

What about adoptees and donor-conceived individuals?

If you’re adopted or donor-conceived, your family health history might be limited or take more time to collect. This is where other information, like that from 23andMe, can help fill in gaps for adoptees and others. Access to a more complete and accurate family health history is important to many people. In fact, it can be the main reason some, including adoptees and those who are donor-conceived, decide to start searching for DNA relatives. 

What do you do with family health history once you have it?

A  family health history gathers information about genetics, lifestyle, and environment in one place. Learning more about the medical history of your close relatives can give you insights into what conditions could be common in your family and can help you make healthier choices. Just remember to talk to a healthcare professional before making any changes. Learn more about genetic counseling and how genetic counselors at 23andMe are working at a broader level to help. 

How can using 23andMe help?

23andMe’s Family Health History Tree for Health + Ancestry Service customers also records and preserves that history. (The Family Health History Tree is currently only available for Health + Ancestry Service customers in the United States and Canada.) Much like any family tree, this one visually represents how you connect to different relatives. But this tree offers the ability for you to include medical conditions, offering you a visual record of current and past health issues for you and your close relatives. 23andMe’s Family Health History Tree gives you a place to record information that you can share with your healthcare provider for use to help you manage your health.

Check it out here. Not yet a customer? Find out more here.

Need some help jogging your memory or a list of conditions to take to family?

Here are common examples for several types of health conditions:

•Chronic health conditions — Examples: type 1 and type 2 diabetes, asthma, allergies, cancer, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, lung disease, kidney disease, Crohn’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease.

•Mental health conditions — Examples: depression, anxiety, alcohol and substance use disorders, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, eating disorders.

•Inherited or genetic conditions — Examples: sickle cell disease, cystic fibrosis, hemochromatosis, hemophilia, muscular dystrophy, alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency, neurofibromatosis, Huntington disease.

•Birth defects — Examples: cleft lip, cleft palate, spina bifida, congenital heart defects. Try asking yourself a few key questions: Does anyone in your family have any unique features? Or have anything you have ever wondered about, like having a small or short stature, or stretchy skin? Were there any early childhood deaths in your family?

•Newborn and childhood conditions — Examples: epilepsy/seizures, childhood cancers, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), failure to thrive.

•Developmental disorders, intellectual disabilities — Examples: autism spectrum disorder, developmental delays, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, Down syndrome, fragile X syndrome, cerebral palsy. Try asking yourself: Has anyone in your family needed special classes in school or speech therapy?

•Vision and hearing loss, physical disabilities — Examples: blindness/vision loss, deafness/hearing loss at a young age.

•Infectious diseases — Examples: malaria, hepatitis, tuberculosis, Lyme disease, infectious mononucleosis (mono). Knowing whether a family member has been exposed to an infectious disease can be valuable information to include in your family health history. Healthcare professionals can use this information when trying to understand the role genetics may, or may not, be playing in a family member’s health condition.

•Reproductive and pregnancy complications — Examples: male or female infertility, miscarriage, stillbirth, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), endometriosis, sperm disorders like abnormal sperm shape or mobility, testicular disorders, varicoceles, enlarged prostate.

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