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Do You Know Your Family Health History?

My family is having a big reunion during the holidays. I suggested that we take advantage of the gathering to put together a family health history, but some of the others argue that genetic testing would do more good. Who is right?

Answer (Published 11/30/2010)

You are. Family reunions provide a wonderful opportunity to learn more about the inherited health concerns that might someday affect you and your children. Ideally, everyone should be able to put together a family health tree, but a government survey found that fewer than one third of families in the U.S. have one. You can learn how to assemble a family health history – and create it electronically – by going to https://familyhistory.hhs.gov, a free website operated by the Office of the Surgeon General.

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As for genetic testing, a Cleveland Clinic study recently compared family health histories from 22 patients and their spouses with results from online genetic testing services that analyze DNA and predict health risks based on the results. When investigators checked results of saliva testing from a genomic service against risks revealed via family history, they found that the DNA analysis missed nine people with a strong family history of colon cancer and erroneously identified eight men at high risk for prostate cancer who had no more than average risk based on the family health history. My feeling is that medical genetics is complex, and that the results require an interpretation which is more complicated than this kind of simplistic analysis. If your family history suggests that you may have inherited a predisposition to a disease, talk to your physician about any potential benefits that genetic testing might provide and the right way to have it performed.

If you decide to put together a family history, be sure to get information from both sides of the family. Many women don’t realize that the risk of breast cancer can come from their father’s lineage as well as their mother’s.

I would encourage you to take advantage of your family reunion to begin pulling together all the information you need to construct a family health tree. The more you know, the better equipped you and your physician will be to determine your health risks and take the appropriate steps to address them.

Best wishes for a happy holiday season.
Andrew Weil, M.D.

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