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No Family Medical History? Here’s What You Should Know

October 04, 2016

Family medical history is critical for how we provide care, but in some cases a patient may not have access to this information. When someone is adopted or loses their parents early in life, it’s difficult for them to know what medical conditions may be common in their family.

If you don’t have access to your family medical history, here’s what you can do.

What is Family Medical History?

First, you should understand exactly what we mean when we say family medical history. This history includes health information for your immediate family, typically parents and siblings. A thorough record even may include the health history of your grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles and other second or third-degree relatives.

For each member of your family, it’s important to get information on their medical and mental health conditions, age of diagnosis, date of birth, lifestyle habits, information for deceased relatives and their cause of death.

Why is Family Medical History So Important?

Families share certain traits, including genetics and lifestyle. Hereditary diseases or inherited gene mutations (like the BRCA gene for breast cancer) may run in families and a complete medical history can provide your doctors with this information.

Family medical history is important because it allows us to assess your risk of certain diseases and conditions, such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease or stroke, and enables us to develop medical interventions that are appropriate to reduce your risk. With this information, we also can empower you as a patient to take preventative steps to maintain good health.

In addition to assessing your disease risk, family history also helps us determine what kinds of diagnostic tests you should undergo, whether you should get genetic testing, helps us assess your risk of passing on hereditary diseases to your children and determine how often you should be screened for a certain disease. For example, the general health guidelines recommend colon cancer screening beginning at age 50 for healthy adults. However, if you have a parent or sibling who has had colon cancer, this screening should begin 10 years earlier at age 40.

How to Access this Information

The easiest way to access your family’s medical history is to talk to your parents, siblings and other relatives about their health. Ask them about their disease history, their lifestyle habits and what medications they take for which conditions. These conversations can be uncomfortable, but having this information is too vital.

For people who don’t have their family medical history, extra legwork or testing may be necessary. Some adoptees have found their birth parents just to uncover their medical history, which is critical when adoption documents contain very little or none of this information. If you have your birth parents’ names, public records such as birth or death certificates may give you more insight into your family’s background. Also ask your adoptive parents or the adoption agency whether they have any information that could give you more information about your family medical history. If you were adopted through open adoption, it may be possible to reach out to biological family members and get this information. If this isn’t possible, we typically advise patients to follow general medical practices. Genetics panels also may be necessary in some cases, such as evaluating the risks of certain cancers.

If you don’t have access to your family medical history, be open and honest with your health practitioners about it. For those who do have access to this information, make sure to store it in a safe and easily accessible place. If you’d like to digitally maintain this information, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services provides an online tool for you to create a family health portrait. Use it or another method of your choosing to safeguard this valuable information and share it with your doctor.

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