To understand the abnormal one must know the normal


In efforts to improve and maintain our health as we strive for longevity there is much to be gained by consulting the patterns in our history. The advantages of being aware of your inherited strengths and weaknesses have the potential to reinforce the former and alter the course of the latter. Family medical history records contain health information pertaining to the conditions and illnesses present amongst members within a span of at least three generations ( i.e parents, children, grandparents, and extended family). Statistically, family members represent a portion of the population whose genes, culture, environment and socioeconomic experiences are most likely to correlate with each other; thereby providing a likely predictor of an individual within that family’s risk factors associated with certain diseases or ailments. It is important to mention that the genetic mutations that may result in the formation of any given disease vary in their effectiveness of initiation, progression and severity.

Having a family history that shows susceptibility to a certain illness or disease does not mean you will have the same outcome, concurrently  the lack of said family history does not leave you exempt. It is fascinating to consider the dynamic interaction between heredity, habit and habitat; consider the following:

“For example, there are likely to be genes whose variations are associated with a predisposition toward the initiation of disease and other genes or gene variations that are involved in the progression of a disease to a clinically defined endpoint. Furthermore, an entirely different set of genes may be involved in how an individual responds to pharmaceutical treatments for that disease. There also are likely to be genes whose variability controls how much or how little a person is likely to be responsive to the environmental risk factors that are associated with disease risk. Finally, there are thought to be genes that affect a person’s overall longevity that may counteract or interact with genes that may otherwise predispose that person to a particular disease outcome and thus may have an additional impact on survivorship.” (Blazer & Hernandez 2006)

A complete family medical history, sometimes referred to a medical history tree will make patterns apparent as far as what conditions readily appear amongst members as it relates to age, gender, etc. Certain conditions like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, mental health illnesses, stroke, and high blood pressure can be influenced by the combination of genetics, environment and lifestyle choice. Knowledge of your family medical history coupled with annual health screenings and healthy adaptive behaviors can positively affect your quality of your life. But it doesn’t stop there. Making health a priority and actively engaging in these conversations regularly with your family can improve their quality of life as well. Your doctor or health care provider will be able to use you family history record to:

-Assess your risk of certain diseases

-Recommend treatments or changes in diet or other lifestyle habits to reduce the risk of disease

-Determine which diagnostic tests to order

-Determine the type and frequency of screening tests

-Determine whether you or family members should get a specific genetic test

-Identify a condition that might not otherwise be considered

-Identify other family members who are at risk of developing a certain disease

-Assess your risk of passing conditions on to your children (Mayo Clinic)

The U.S Surgeon General has created a convenient online tool called My Family Health Portrait to help families securely log their medical histories, you can visit  for more details. However, you can just as simply create your own template by using a spreadsheet with the help of your doctor or health care provider. Some family members may be hesitant or reluctant to disperse their personal information. With that in mind, here are some tips to help start your family medical tree:

Share your purpose. Explain that you’re creating a record to help you determine whether you and your relatives have a family history of certain diseases or health conditions. Offer to make the medical history available to other family members so that they can share the information with their doctors.

Provide several ways to answer questions. Some people might be more willing to share health information in a face-to-face conversation. Others might prefer answering your questions by phone, mail or email.

Word questions carefully. Keep your questions short and to the point.

Be a good listener. As your relatives talk about their health problems, listen without judgment or comment.

Respect privacy. As you collect information about your relatives, respect their right to confidentiality. (Mayo Clinic)

Genes provide a blueprint, the scaffold for our experiences but not the parameters for our expectations. We can work with our adaptive strengths to overcome the shadows of our inherited weaknesses and enhance the quality of life for ourselves, our loved ones and for future generations.

  Articles Cited  

D.G Blazer, Hernandez L.M editors (2006)

Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Assessing Interactions Among Social, Behavioral, and Genetic Factors in Health.Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US)

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