When you visit the doctor, one of the first things they will discuss with you is your family’s medical history. This is not to be intrusive. It helps them assess your health in relation to your relatives, to gauge your risk for disease.
Many medical conditions have a genetic component, and knowing more about your family’s medical history can help your doctor assess your risk for disease. You might also share behaviours – such as what you like to eat and the type of exercise you do (if any). You might have also spent time living in the same general area as your family, which could provide information about the environmental influence on your condition.
What Will My Doctor Ask?
To provide an accurate risk assessment, your doctor will need information about the specific type of conditions you and your immediate family (your parents, siblings, and children) suffer from. You will likely complete a questionnaire or your doctor will ask you in person about your own and your family’s medical history. They might want to know about:
- Chronic conditions
- Genetic conditions
- Age of diagnosis
- Heart diseases
- Kidney diseases
- Liver diseases
- Lung diseases
The specific questions your doctor asks will depend on why you went to see them, and your prior relationship with them. If they have known you for a while, and they know your family as well, they won’t need as much new information.
How Do I Get A Hold Of My Family’s Medical History?
The first, most obvious way to know more about your family, is to ask them to talk about themselves. Take a moment to broach the subject of their health, strategically and kindly. Some people will be more open to discussing their health than others.
You might also observe your family member’s habits and vices – do they smoke? Drink a lot of alcohol? Exercise daily? Do you share some of these habits with them?
Which Conditions Often Run in Families?
There are several conditions that have a tendency to run in families.
These conditions are influenced by genetics but may be caused or exasperated by environmental or lifestyle factors.
Knowing if a genetic condition runs in your family can help you plan for your own health. If you are planning to start a family, it is imperative that you discuss any known familial genetic conditions with your doctor, so that they can advise you on the risk of your child inheriting the condition.
Some of the most common genetic conditions include:
- Down Syndrome
- Cystic Fibrosis
- Sickle Cell Disease
- Huntington’s Disease
- Muscular Dystrophy
- Tay-Sachs Disease
- Fragile X Syndrome
- Autism Spectrum Disorder
- Polycystic Kidney Disease
- Marfan Syndrome
- Phenylketonuria (PKU
- Familial Hypercholesterolemia
Heart disease is one of the biggest causes of death worldwide. If heart diseases like coronary artery disease or hypertension (high blood pressure) is present in your family, it could increase your risk. Genetics can play a role in influencing cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and other heart-related factors, meaning that you might be more prone to heart disease, even if your lifestyle is relatively healthy.
Heart disease can be diagnosed at various ages, but if you have a family history of heart disease your doctor may request that you are screened as early as your 20s or 30s.
Both type 1 and type 2 diabetes can have a genetic component.
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disorder, meaning that the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks the cells that produce insulin. In some cases, there may be a genetic predisposition for the immune system to behave this way.
Symptoms of type 1 diabetes include increased thirst, frequent urination, sudden weight loss, fatigue, and blurry vision. Type 1 diabetes is often diagnosed in childhood or adolescence.
Type 2 diabetes is often associated with lifestyle factors such as obesity and sedentary behaviour – which may be shared among family members. However, genetics also play a role in the development of type 2 diabetes.
Type 2 diabetes symptoms include increased thirst, frequent urination, fatigue, blurred vision, and slow-healing wounds. It’s commonly diagnosed in adults, but increasingly also in younger individuals due to rising obesity rates.
Some types of cancer, such as breast, ovarian, colon, and prostate cancer, can be influenced by genetics.
Cancer is a wide scope of disease, with the symptoms and age of diagnosis depending on the type of cancer.
Conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and multiple sclerosis can have a genetic link. Autoimmune diseases are often diagnosed in young or middle-aged adults.
While lifestyle factors also play a role, if obesity runs in your family, you might have a higher risk.
Obesity is characterized by excessive weight gain and can lead to health complications such as high blood pressure and diabetes. It can be diagnosed at any age, using body mass index measurements.
Genetics can contribute to your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. If a close family member has had Alzheimer’s, your risk may be somewhat increased.
Symptoms of Alzheimer’s include memory loss, confusion, difficulty with familiar tasks, and mood changes. The age of diagnosis is typically after age 65, but early-onset Alzheimer’s can occur as early as 40 years old.
Asthma And Allergies
Allergies, asthma, or related conditions like eczema are common among family members.
Symptoms of asthma include wheezing, difficulty breathing, chest tightness, and coughing. On the other hand, allergy symptoms can manifest as sneezing, a runny or congested nose, itchy or watery eyes, and possible skin reactions. Both asthma and allergies can be diagnosed at any stage of life.
Frequently Asked Questions
If you don’t have access to your biological family members, or you don’t know who they are - don’t worry. Your doctor will be kind and cognisant about the impact this might have on you, emotionally, and they will continue their assessment as normal without the family history information.