More than a trip down memory lane

November 21, 2019

It didn’t just affect their past, it will affect your present and future.

Learning more about your family health history might sound like a boring history class, but remember, you acquire your genes from your parents. This means that you are at 50% risk of carrying a genetic mutation if one of your parents carries it.

While it’s fun to determine which genes give you your height, hair and eye colors, other genes can indicate your degree of risk associated with certain illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, addiction, or mental health disorders. Learning about these problems earlier on will help you mitigate the symptoms if they show up, and possibly even prevent them from ever happening.

Knowing your family health history beforehand will make your checkup shorter, honing in on particular problems.

The New York Times’ “Lifetime Health Checkup Roadmap” provides information about common tests and routine maintenance that everyone should adhere to. An important excerpt from the article reads: “There’s a key part of prevention that should not be overlooked: At every stage of your adult life, you should undergo routine screening exams to catch any health problems so you can try to nip them in the bud.”¹ Many routine checkups require an initial understanding of your family background in order to focus on certain areas.

Robin Oliviera, a 56-year-old retired nurse, experienced a heart attack without realizing what was going on. A heart attack can be hard to recognize, especially for women; women’s heart attack symptoms differ from men’s symptoms, and they are more subtle.² Complicated family health histories can easily sneak up on someone if they aren’t aware of the health issues they can potentially face. Therefore, understanding what illnesses you are more likely to be susceptible to and preventing them to the best of your ability is crucial when taking care of your health. The US National Library of Medicine suggests, “For people at an increased risk of certain cancers, healthcare professionals may recommend more frequent screening (such as mammography or colonoscopy) starting at an earlier age. Healthcare providers may also encourage regular checkups or testing for people with a medical condition that runs in their family.”³ If we can tailor our clothes to look good, why don’t we begin tailoring our health measures to feel good? Most benefit plans cover basic preventive health screening, but they can cover other screenings if family health risks are evident. Check with your insurance ahead of time to make sure they cover more screenings. Some corporations today even help pay for resources such as health club memberships to foster a healthy lifestyle.

Understanding family history not only provides indirect health benefits, it also helps put things into perspective.

In a New York Times article about parents’ struggle regarding whether to share genetic risks with their children, author J.W. Harris writes, “Some developmental specialists suggest that adolescents may benefit from learning that a mutation runs in their family because the potential threat is distant, giving them time to develop coping strategies and resilience if they test positive as adults.” Talking about these issues should be done in an age appropriate manner, taking into account the child’s ability to process information as well as the specific abilities and coping skills of that individual. Hiding information does not serve long term mental or physical health, but if a child or adolescent struggles with anxiety, sharing too much too soon may be detrimental.  Talk to your child’s doctor and therapist about timing and approach.  Although responses regarding this subject may vary, mental and emotional preparation can go a long way in pursuing a healthy and focused approach to life.

Knowing you’re at risk doesn’t have to be so scary, but avoiding it is like playing with fire.

The US National Library of Medicine states, “While a family medical history provides information about the risk of specific health concerns, having relatives with a medical condition does not mean that an individual will definitely develop that condition. On the other hand, a person with no family history of a disorder may still be at risk of developing that disorder.” Your family could have no known history of a certain disorder, but you and your family members may be unknowing carriers of a recessive lethal gene. If this gene combines with another person who carries the same recessive gene, it can produce a child with significant health problems including Tay-Sachs, cystic fibrosis, sickle-cell anemia, and achondroplasia. Learning more about potential health risks will help you regain control and peace of mind over your life, and mitigate any unwelcome surprises in the future.

It is important to note that genetic research is receiving a lot of attention in many parts of the world, especially with focus on specific diseases. As a result, what we know today may change significantly and may even be invalidated by tomorrow. If you are concerned about anything specific that has genetic implications or about a disorder that has yet to be identified, check up on current research on a regular basis. It is important to seek information without escalating your anxiety to an unhealthy level. Some people focus on seeking medical information so obsessively that it can increase their anxiety and impair mental health.

As the saying goes, your body, your choice, but it still affects those around you, your kids, and their kids. Knowing your health information is a crucial step to optimize your efforts toward a healthy life. We spend so much time tending to our day-to-day health by doing things like drinking water, exercising, and eating nutritious food but if we aren’t taking our family health history into account, we may be heading down the wrong direction.

¹ O'Connor, A. (n.d.). Your Lifetime Health Checkup Roadmap. The New York Times.
² Oliveira, R. (2019, February 15). ‘I Had No Idea I Was Having a Heart Attack’: For Women, the Signals Often Aren’t Clear. The Wall Street Journal.
³ Why is it important to know my family medical history? (2019, April 30). US National Library of Medicine. Retrieved from https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/primer/inheritance/familyhistory
⁴ Harris, J. W. (2017, April 20). When to Tell Daughters About a Genetic Breast Cancer Risk. The New York Times.
⁵ Why is it important to know my family medical history? (2019, April 30). US National Library of Medicine. Retrieved from https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/primer/inheritance/familyhistory
⁶ Lobo, I., Ph.D. (2008). Mendelian Ratios and Lethal Genes. Nature Education, 1(1), 138.

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