Magazine article The Exceptional Parent

Genetics and Your Health: Family Health History Can Be a Critical Factor in a Physician's Care and Treatment Recommendations, but Only the Patient Can Provide This Information

Magazine article The Exceptional Parent

Genetics and Your Health: Family Health History Can Be a Critical Factor in a Physician's Care and Treatment Recommendations, but Only the Patient Can Provide This Information

Article excerpt

Words like "chromosome" and "mutation" seem like they fit more in a biology textbook than in conversations about family health. However, research consistently shows that your genes can play as important a role in your health as the medications you take and the foods you eat. Parents of all children, including those with special healthcare needs, should consider the role that genetics plays in leading a healthy lifestyle for themselves and their family members.

Take Ian, for example:

Ian knew that all of his male relatives had passed away at an early age, mostly from heart attacks. He thought that if he avoided the bad habits of his relatives by eating well, not smoking, and exercising regularly, then he wouldn't be at risk. When he suffered a heart attack at age 49, Ian realized there was more at play than his own personal choices.

Recording a family health history is a simple but enormous step for the health of the whole family. It's important to be aware of the different conditions that run in the family, but a health history should also include such information as what kind of work and activities family members participate in. Including these facts reveals a better picture of what health risks might be particularly significant.


Collecting a family health history can start with something simple, a conversation around the dinner table or a phone call to parents. Once the base information is collected, it's easier to expand the scope of a search and to ask other members to participate in collecting the details. Sending out an email survey is a great way to reach more distant relatives, and existing documents like family trees, photo albums, and baby books can also provide useful information. There are plenty of free resources to help organize and collect a family health history. Try the Does It Run In the Family? toolkit ( and the Surgeon General's My Family Health Portrait (


Family health history can be a critical factor in a physician's care and treatment recommendations, but only the patient can provide this information. Once a family health history is collected, patients should provide it to their family doctor. Questions invariably come up while collecting this information, and it's important to write them down and bring them to the doctor's appointment. A family health history can help a doctor make a diagnosis, but more frequently it alerts your physician to certain genetic risks that might affect your family. This means that it's up to patients to make use of their family health history and what it means for their whole family.

In Michelle's case, giving her doctor this information may have helped save her life:

Michelle had lost several of her aunts to breast cancer, so when she herself was diagnosed at age 42, she was concerned. She talked about her family health history with a doctor, and he referred Michelle to a geneticist. When she tested positive for a gene that increased her risk for developing breast cancer younger, Michelle's doctors worked with her to come up with a list of options. Knowing that she had this gene was powerful information. She was able to make important health decisions to lower her risk of getting cancer again, and encourage the other members of her family, including her children, to undergo regular testing from an early age.


Genes are beyond our sight and our control, but that does not mean that we are powerless against them. Genetic makeup plays a big role in health, but so do personal choices and environments. A family health history can help indicate the right health choices for an individual, but even more significantly for his children and future generations as well. If a family is at risk for heart disease like Ian's, doctors might recommend medications, a special diet, and an exercise regiment. …

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