Does Disease Run in Your Family?

Find out your family’s genealogy to help prevent and treat disease

Does disease run in your family?

Your sparkling blue eyes and thick chestnut locks aren’t the only traits passed down through genes. Stroke, arthritis, asthma, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and depression can run in families, too. Knowing your family’s medical history could provide the key to a long, healthy life.

According to Lynn Jorde, chair of the department of human genetics at the University of Utah, certain diseases tend to cluster in families, so knowing the particular illnesses lurking in your family’s past can help keep you and your family healthy today. ‘This knowledge can help alert a physician that you may need special monitoring or certain tests. We know that if you have a close relative with coronary artery disease, or common cancers like breast, colon or prostate, this doubles your risk of having the same thing.’

When it comes to the use of genealogy for medical purposes, the United States is ahead of Canada. American health experts say the creation of a family health chart, or ‘pedigree,’ lets you become proactive about reducing your own health risks. ‘The power behind a family health history is that you can identify problems earlier-when they’re more likely to be treated, cured or prevented,’ says Jenny Johnson, a media and education coordinator at the Utah Department of Health who helped develop an online resource for creating health pedigrees called the Family Health History Toolkit (you can find it at here).

Unlocking your family’s health secrets may seem daunting, but it’s actually easy (as long as you know who your birth parents are). Here’s how:

Start with three generations

‘The three closest generations are usually going to have the most impact on someone’s risk,’ says Kiley Johnson, a certified genetic counsellor at the Mayo Clinic’s department of genetics in Minnesota. ‘Create a three-generation chart including your siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents.’ That may be all you need to see if there’s a pattern of a specific disorder or disease.

Note your own health history

Write down any major illnesses, diseases and surgeries that you’ve had. Be sure to include your age and the dates when these events began or occurred. Next, add lifestyle habits. Do you smoke? Are you overweight? Do you exercise? Do you get enough servings of fruit and vegetables daily, and eat according to Canada’s Food Guide? ‘You’re looking not just at the genetic component, but at lifestyle and environmental components,’ says Suzanne O’Neill, associate director of Northwestern University’s graduate program in genetic counselling. Lifestyle habits along with environmental factors (such as workplace exposure to pesticides, and air pollution where you and your family members live) can impact health and are worth noting.

Speak with your parents

The next step is to discuss your project with your parents’but don’t be surprised if they’re hesitant. ‘Some families don’t like to talk about health history if there’s been a death, or certain cancers,’ says Jenny Johnson. If your family is shy about discussing health issues, the Family Health History Toolkit is a great place to start. It contains interesting methods to get the conversation rolling, such as creating a family history book for a new grandchild (click on Fun Ideas). Once your parents are comfortable, pull out a pen and paper, or turn on your smartphone’s voice recording app, and start asking questions (see ‘Questions to Ask,’ below).

If your parents are no longer living, ask your uncles and aunts. Most families have a storyteller in their midst. If not, refer to the certified copy of your parents’ death registration (completed by the funeral director) or medical certificate of death (completed by the nurse or doctor at the time of death) as opposed to a regular death certificate, which won’t feature an actual cause. If you don’t have these documents, as the next of kin you can purchase a copy from your province or territory’s vital statistics agency (see ‘Where to Get More Information’). With a copy of your parents’ death record, you can order Canadian-based death registrations for your grandparents, too.

Be resourceful

Each country has its own access and privacy laws regarding the release of vital statistics, so if your grandparents lived in another country, you may have to do some extra digging. Cyndi’s List contains many web links to genealogy sources around the world.

If you were adopted, you can create a partial health history of your own illnesses and lifestyle habits. Adoptees should also contact the agency that handled their adoption. You might be surprised by the information available. Laws frequently change, says O’Neill, so information that wasn’t accessible years ago might be obtainable today.

Get organized

Arrange your genealogy information into one digital document. There are several free online tools that make organization easy, including:

• a printable family health history form
• a printable automated health pedigree from the United States’ Surgeon General

You now have a wealth of health information. Do certain diseases repeat from generation to generation, or are there ailments that affect only one relative? To learn what this information means for you, take a copy to your doctor. ‘Health pedigrees give doctors a head start as to what conditions to look out for,’ says O’Neill. Your GP will decide whether your findings warrant a referral to a genetic counsellor, who determines whether you’re at risk for certain diseases. Genetic testing is often recommended if these conditions appear in a pedigree:

• Close family members have an early onset (before age 50) of an inheritable disease.
• The same health issue is present in more than one close relative; for example, your grandmother and sister both had cervical cancer.
• There’s an illness that crosses genders, such as breast cancer in a male family member.
• Certain combinations of health issues appear; for example, your family has both breast and ovarian cancer, or heart disease and diabetes.

Genetic tests are virtually pain-free. A simple blood test or non-invasive buccal swab (a cotton swab rubbed on the inside of your cheek) will be taken at a lab, where a technician will examine the sample’s chromosomes, DNA or proteins for potential problems. When your results are complete, the genetic counsellor will have confirmation of any inherited health risks. At that point you will either be given the all-clear, or additional tests and monitoring specifically related to your condition will be discussed with you. Researching your family’s medical history puts a new life-saving spin on genealogy’and the life it might save could be your own.

This article was originally titled “Unlock the secrets of your family tree” in the September 2012 issue of Best Health. Subscribe today to get the full Best Health experience-and never miss an issue!