Family History

In a world where genetic testing and technology are the go-to answer, the value in completing a family history can get lost. But family history is the most effective tool for genetic counselors and physicians to use to determine health risk.

Megan Bell, ScM, CGC, a genetic counselor at Sanford Health says, “People are constantly talking about, ‘Well, I want a test for this.’ or ‘I want to know that.’ And while these are helpful, family history is still important. We use it to understand health risks and concerns, to find out what ages someone in a family was diagnosed with a condition and what lifestyle choices occur. For example, is the person or family member a smoker or work in the sun? Was the person exposed to Agent Orange in war? More than just health problems, we are finding out what lives were like.”

While genetics contributes, often it is only one factor in why a condition occurs. Three main factors drive disease risk: behavior, environment and genetics.

“A family history encompasses all three,” Bell explains. “It gets into the details. Families often share the same diet, or there could be secondhand smoke exposure. Families grow up or live in the same areas, so if there’s a chemical in the water that could be important. Although people do have conditions specific to just them, we are trying to get as much information and data as possible for a complete overview.”

The more detailed a family history, the better. Specific information for each member of the family is also helpful, even those who are seemingly healthy or who didn’t have any health conditions.

Talking to your family

Obtaining health information can be challenging and often requires health-specific conversations with relatives. For some, the idea of talking to a family member about health conditions may be difficult or uncomfortable. And some families don’t have very many living relatives or aren’t close. Bell will offer resources, tools and strategies to make this process easier at her upcoming lecture. She will present ‘All in the Family: Genetics and Family Health History,’ on Tuesday, Sept. 12, at 7 p.m. in the Sanford Center’s Coyote Room.

“People can get discouraged when not close to their family, there aren’t any living relatives or if there wasn’t documentation. But know that is not the end of the story!” says Bell. “You have the ability to empower your own family in the future. I encourage patients to establish sharing health information with the next generation – with their siblings and their children. Keep the information regularly updated. You can’t go back in time, but we can start things fresh now.”

Bell adds, “If there isn’t a person in the family keeping track, you can become that person. You can track down health records, talk to family and then compile the information in a way that everyone can use. Or if you don’t think you are the right person, find the person in the family who has an interest or knows this information.”

Why it matters

Family history is documented by genetic counselors into a pedigree, a genetics version of a family tree. This information is then available for providers throughout future care. It is the patient’s responsibility to keep this information up-to-date and to inform their provider of any change.

“When talking about family history and genetics, people sometimes see it as futile. If it’s in their family, they are bound to get it,” says Bell. “But I see it as the opposite. If heart disease runs in your family, you might have some genetic risk factors. But let’s take the behavior and environment pieces and try to change them. We can’t change our genetics, but we can change behavior and environment, for the most part. Rather than seeing genetics as an inevitable thing, let’s see about making life changes to reduce risk. And our genetic counselors and providers are here to help you accomplish this.”

Call Sanford Imagenetics at (605) 312-GENE to learn more.