Navigating the unknown: How to uncover your family medical history

You almost certainly will be asked about your family’s medical history at your next physical exam. But what if you don’t know that information?

“Knowing your family’s medical history is an important part of preventive health care,” says Dr. John Agaiby, a family medicine provider at Aurora Health Care in Kenosha, Wis. “It can provide valuable insight into your risk for various diseases, such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes.”  

Unfortunately, not everyone has access to this information due to various circumstances. Having deceased family members, losing contact with living family members, and being adopted can make it challenging to get this information. In many cases, family members can be reluctant to discuss their health because of not wanting to worry others or to keep their health concerns private.  

“A person’s health can be a sensitive subject,” Dr. Agaiby says. “The best place to start is with the information you have or try to ask questions delicately with empathy and understanding.”  

If you can, try to obtain a health history for at least three generations of close relatives: parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. Focus on conditions where genetics may increase your risk and don’t forget to ask what age the condition began or occurred: 

  • Diabetes
  • Early death
  • Cancer
  • Heart disease – Both stroke and heart attack
  • High blood pressure or high cholesterol
  • Autoimmune disease
  • Alzheimer’s disease 
  • Mental health disorders 

Knowing the above information is a great place to start and is valuable information to give to your primary care provider.   

But talking to family members about their health history may not be the best dinner table conversation. A one-on-one conversation could unlock clues and details to more information. Sometimes, a family member may even want to share personal health stories, struggles and victories.  

If your family members are still reluctant to discuss their medical history, there are other approaches. If you have aunts, uncles or cousins that you keep in regular contact with, they may be able to give you more insight. It can be helpful to explain why you want to know. 

If all else fails, genealogical research can be a valuable tool for piecing together your family health history. Many online resources can provide documentation or genetic insights to potential relatives.  

Finally, your primary care provider can refer you to a genetic counselor or a medical geneticist, a specialist that assesses and interprets genetic indicators of disease. They may also suggest genetic testing based on age, gender or risk factors.  

If you keep running into hurdles while trying to unlock your genetic risk for various conditions, talk with your doctor.

Do you need a physical exam? Look here if you live in Illinois. Look here if you live in Wisconsin.

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