Every time you go to a new doctor they ask you to fill out a packet of forms. Often they include a number of questions relating to your family health history, such as diseases, causes of death, etc. for your parents, grandparents and sibilings. Despite the recent hype over genetic screening, it appears that those family health history forms are still a more valuable indicator of our own genetic health risks according to the results of a new study by the Cleveland Clinic's Genomic Medicine Institute.
The study is fairly convincing when it comes to how powerful a good family health history can be. For example, the genomic screening done by Navigenics missed all nine of the 44 study participants with a strong family risk of colon cancer, five of whom also carry a specific gene mutation not currently tested for by Navigenics. To be fair, however, the study only calculated the risks for colon, breast and prostate cancer, and for a very small population. Some genetic predispositions often tested for in broad genomic screening, such as Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT), may not appear in your family health history if your family members were lucky and never actually developed a blood clot.
Having dipped my own toes into genetic screening throuh 23andme.com, I would agree with experts that say that family health history in combination with genetic screening is probably the best weapon. There is one medical condition on the maternal side of my family that I always felt might be genetic - and yes, it came up as the only real red flag on my health report from 23andme.com. Interestingly, however, the report also indicates a slight predisposition to papillary thyroid cancer (though these markers are based on only a single study, I believe). No family history there, and believe me I've looked into it - because I've already fought my own battle with the disease. If you can't afford genetic testing, however, it is good to learn that compiling a good old-fashioned family health history is probably a better predictor of the illnesses that you and your children are likely to face.
If you don't yet know everything there is to know about your own family's health history, now is the time to find out. The U.S. Surgeon General offers a free My Family Health Portrait tool to help you get started, and there are additional tools available on the Talk Health History Campaign Web site from The American Society of Human Genetics. The best place to start, however, is really your family dinner table. Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas and other holidays are the perfect time to start the discussion, as extended families come together. See All in the Family - Tracing Your Family Medical History for suggestions on what and how to ask the right questions.
Make this the year you compile your family health history. It might just save your life!