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Kimberly Powell

Family Health History Better Than Genetic Screening

By November 10, 2010

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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!

November 10, 2010 at 9:26 pm
(1) ashley says:

Thank you so much for this! I’m doing an argument on why genealogy is important. This will help with one of my arguments.

November 11, 2010 at 10:10 am
(2) Gaye Tannenbaum says:

With the holidays approaching, this is an ideal time to promote obtaining family medical histories (as this article does). Not only does having a detailed updated family medical history show risk of disease, it also allows your doctors to efficiently tailor screening and treatments. What worked for Mom’s or Grandma Smith’s high cholesterol is a good indication of what might work for yours.

November is also National Adoption Awareness Month, and for six million US born adoptees (and their parents, children, grandchildren and doctors), obtaining a detailed up-to-date family medical history is an unattainable wish. Any family medical histories that were taken at the time of adoption are horribly out-of-date. Mine (1953) told me that “everyone was healthy”, although it did mention that my great grandfather died of TB during the 1930s. While everyone else is encouraged to “ask Grandma”, the laws of 44 states (and DC) prevent US born adoptees from even knowing who “Grandma” is.

So called “mutual consent registries” have been abject failures. Even after 25 years, over 90% of New York’s registrants are still waiting to be matched. A simple, but incorrect, assumption is that most birth parents do not wish to be contacted. However, data from other sources actually indicates that the vast majority of birth parents DO WANT CONTACT from their relinquished sons and daughters. Where state law allows birth parents to state a preference regarding contact, fewer than 10% of those filing the form have stated that they do NOT want contact. Clearly there is a major disconnect between assumption and reality.

Why should an adult, who happens to be adopted, be required to petition the court or pay thousands of dollars for a state-approved intermediary (where available) while others can simply “ask Grandma” at the holiday dinner table?



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