Myths, Facts About Family Health History

Ruzanna Harutyunyan's picture
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This Thanksgiving is the fifth annual National Family History Day, as declared by the U.S. Surgeon General. The American College of Medical Genetics (ACMG) encourages every American to know their family medical history and if they haven't already gathered this potentially life-saving information, to "start the conversation" about family medical history this Thanksgiving holiday. "Be proactive! Begin preparing now to be an active participant in the personalized medicine movement by learning and recording your family health history," says Judith Benkendorf, MS, CGC, of the American College of Medical Genetics. To help the public better understand Family Health History, ACMG has developed the following Myths and Facts:

1. Myth: It's way too complicated for me to try to gather my family health history. I'm too busy and it would take too much time.

Fact: Family history information can be collected over time. Begin by writing down your own health history and then that of your closest relatives (your parents, brothers, sisters and children), working out to your more distant relatives. As you identify missing information, make a list of what you need and have other family members assist you. A family health history is a living document. It is never done, but rather will continue to grow over time. The most important step is just getting started. Simple tools to assist with this process are listed below.

2. Myth: I'm adopted and have no information about my biological family. Therefore, recording a family health history does not apply to me.

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Fact: This is a common concern for people who were adopted and is one reason why people seek a consultation with a geneticist or genetic counselor. The longer ago you were adopted, the less likely it is that you will be able to retrieve much health history information on your biological family. But, as you have your own family, it is important that you document your personal health history to leave behind for them. In 2-3 generations the fact that you were adopted will have little to no impact on the quality of the family health information available to your descendents. Also, if you are thinking about becoming an adoptive parent, you should try to collect whatever family medical history is allowed in your state.

3. Myth: With all the DNA tests now available, wouldn't it just be better to take a DNA test and find out what diseases I'm "going to get?"

Fact: DNA tests are most often ordered and best interpreted in the context of family health history and with the support and guidance of a healthcare professional. Pairing DNA testing with family history can save health care dollars and better direct services. Even in our "high tech" world, family history remains the most sensitive genetic test known.

4. Myth: If I do not "favor" the side of my family that has the health problems "running in" it, I do not need to worry about collecting and recording my family history.

Fact: All people inherit 50% of their genes from each parent. Just because you look or act much more like one side of your family, it does not lessen your chances of inheriting genes for preventable health problems from your other parent.

Why is family health history so important? Advances in genetics research mean that knowing your family's medical history can help your healthcare provider to predict conditions for which you and your blood relatives may be at risk and to help you to take actions to minimize risks and protect your health.

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