a family sitting in a tree

Why Are Family Histories Important?

Which family do you come from? The family that is mute on every medical condition or the family that informs other members of critical information?

I have had a number of uncles and aunts who have passed away at a young age, including both sets of my grandparents. My mother’s grandmother passed away at the age of 26.

Health conversations

Having a close-knit family has value in it. I think you are more prone to discuss sensitive topics, like health. These conversations can give the generation behind you a heads-up on what to do and things to be cognizant of. It would arm them with the right questions to ask. The majority of the information I have gained about the health of my relatives was through genealogy research and information on death certificates. Your doctor may notice a pattern of disease in your family, which may be a sign of an inherited form of disease that is passed on from generation to generation.

Why are family histories important?

“Family history is important because so many diseases have a genetic component,” says Northwestern Medicine Internal Medicine Physician and Pediatrician Rakhee Kalelkar, MD. “If we know about diseases that run in the family now, then we can start screening for them early — and often prevent them.”1

My experience

For example, my current nephrologist (i.e., kidney specialist) is testing and checking for specific things because kidney issues run in my family, along with sickle cell trait with beta-thalassemia.

Autoimmune conditions

Autoimmune disorders are another issue that is in my family tree. A family history can help your doctor connect symptoms you have to a disease that runs in your family. One example of this is if someone goes to their healthcare provider for joint pain. The provider may give a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis if that person has a family history of an autoimmune disorder rather than an overuse injury.1

Sharing

I also think it’s important because you can also pass down treatments that worked for you. Our genes play a role in almost all aspects of our health. A gene tells your body how to function, develop, and stay healthy. There are about 20,000 genes in your body. Health conditions, like sickle cell, are determined by your genes because of a mutation or pathogenic variant, which are like mistakes in a gene.2
The most important thing we can do is to be armed with knowledge. It’s like going into a football game already being prepared in what your opponent will run. You have the potential of having a better outcome, and if the family is close, you can see the potential results.
You might be thinking, who do you discuss this with and who's health is relevant?3

  • First-degree relatives: Parents, full siblings, and children
  • Second-degree relatives: Half-siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, and grandchildren
  • Third-degree relatives — First cousins, great-aunts and great-uncles, great-grandparents, great-grandchildren, half-aunts and half-uncles

You can find visual forms many places on the world wide web. Take advantage of them or create your own, as in a journal format or archive to retain the information. Talk about health issues at family functions like family reunions, etc. Someone is dealing with a condition but is not letting it be known for various reasons. Record any patterns you’re finding. It might be helpful for a future generation to see the entire picture.

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