Could Knowing Your Family Health History Save Your Life?

importance of knowing your health history

Jessenia Arias with her biological family in Puerto Rico

Jessenia “Muzik” Arias has spent most of her life in and out of hospitals. Adopted at a young age, her birth parents couldn’t handle the stress of her mysterious illnesses. They left her in the care of a woman who also felt she couldn’t take on the responsibility of caring for an ill child. Eventually, Arias was adopted, but the mysterious illnesses still could not be diagnosed. Arias notes, “I have struggled not knowing my family health history. We do not know if my health problems are hereditary.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Family health history is a written or graphic record of the diseases and health condition present in your family. A useful family health history shows three generations of your biological relatives, the age at diagnosis and the age and cause of death of deceased family members.”

Dr. Brandon Colby, geneticist, and author of, Outsmart Your Genes notes that, “The goal of family health history is to use the knowledge of disease and condition that affect your relatives (or affected deceased relatives) in order to know what diseases your doctor may need to focus on in order to prevent them from occurring in you.”

To create a full family health history, Dr. Colby suggests asking your biological parents, grandparents, and first-degree aunts and uncles these specific questions:

  • Do any health issues such as any diseases, conditions or illnesses affect you?
  • Did you have any health issues as a child?
  • Are you taking any medications now? If so, what for?
  • Did you ever have any surgeries recently or when you were younger? If so, what for?
  • Tell me about the health of your parents- did they have any diseases or health conditions? If they are deceased, how did they die?
  • Tell me about the health of your siblings- did they have any diseases or health conditions? If they are deceased, how did they die?

Dr. Colby stresses the importance of understanding the two components to a health problem; the first is called “environment” and the second “genetics”.  Colby states, “Environment is everything that the body is exposed to throughout a person’s life, such as how much he or she exercises, what food the person eats, if the person smokes cigarettes, and even things like spending time with friends and relaxing.” The other component to a health problem involves the individual’s genes or his or her DNA.  Colby notes, “ Our genes are what we inherit from our parents- about 50% of our genes come from our biological mother and the other 50% from our biological father. When you have a child, you are then passing on 50% of your genes to that child- but the 50% that is passed on is random.”

survey for health historyDr. Colby does note that as scientific research progresses, we are now able to test for many common genetic illnesses. Colby explains, “A genetic test is a laboratory test that evaluates where you have change in a gene, such as a change in a gene that is associated with an increased risk of a disease.” According to the National Institutes of Health a genetic test can range from under $100 to more than $2,000, depending on the nature and complexity of the test.

On November 5, 2012, Arias was able to reconnect with her biological family who found her through her site, The Not So Secret Life of an Adoptee.  Upon meeting her biological family, Arias learned that both her and her sister suffer from similar symptoms related to thyroid complications. She also learned that she, along with other biological family members, suffers from anxiety and depression.  So what advice does Arias offer to those wondering about the importance of knowing you family health history? “I cannot stress how important it is to obtain or access family medical history, it can save an adoptee’s life”, says Arias. “ Bottom line, knowing your family history will save your life!”

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