family history

The holiday season is a time to gather as family and friends, to catch up on each other’s lives, celebrate family traditions, and spend time together. Thanksgiving in particular is a national holiday celebrated on various dates in many different countries. Family often travels to gather in large groups and give thanks. In 2004, Thanksgiving Day was also declared by the U.S. Surgeon General to be National Family History Day.

Understanding Your Genetic History

Family history by definition from the National Institute of Health is “a record of medical information about an individual and their biological family”. We now know that family history is an important part of our medical history. By documenting your family health history, you can better understand your own medical history and stay healthier.

In addition to physical traits like hair color and height, there are many conditions and diseases that we know can be passed down through generations of a family. Diseases like autoimmune diseases, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and cholesterol levels can be seen running through families. Most of these conditions are typically caused by a combination of genetics and environment, called multifactorial conditions, and when seen in families can have an increased risk to be developed in other family members. However, there are also conditions that have a strong genetic component and can be seen in every generation of a family. For example, Hereditary Breast and Ovarian cancer syndrome has a 50% risk of passing from family member to family member.

If you are diagnosed with a genetic condition or have a family history of a genetic condition, it is recommended to meet with a genetic counselor. When you meet with a genetic counselor you will be asked questions about your family history. For example, if a woman is pregnant she may be asked about family history of miscarriage, birth defects, intellectual disability, or autism. If a man has cancer he will be asked if other family members have a diagnosis of cancer, what age they were diagnosed, and what treatment they underwent. As a genetic counselor asks these questions most likely he or she will draw a pedigree, which looks like this:

family history

The squares are men and the circles are females. A slash through the square or circle means the individual is deceased. Horizontal connecting lines are siblings and vertical connecting lines are parents to children. A pedigree helps a genetic counselor to see the connections in families and if a disease is being passed down through generations.

Celebrate Family History Day by Understanding Your Genetic Past

Anyone can draw their own family tree or pedigree. When discussing family health history, ask your relatives questions related to major medical problems, conditions diagnosed, birth defects, or childhood health problems. It’s also important to find out why a family member passed away. Records of birth or death can also lead to information about your family heath history as well.

If your family has a history of disease, or a known inherited genetic condition and would like to discuss your health, please contact AT-GC to meet with a genetic counselor.

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