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Know Your Genetic Risk

Your family's health history holds critical clues.

Getting Started

If you've ever heard one of your older relatives reminiscing about recurring ailments shared by members of your family, then you've already taken the first step toward putting together a family health tree. Once you decide to officially launch a search, it's likely to be a long-term project.

Family health history researchers recommend tracing your health history back at least three or four generations, if possible. Mitchell says that it is vital to include relatives on the horizontal levels of the tree (your own and your parents' brothers and sisters -- or siblings) as well as those on the vertical levels (fathers, mothers, and grandparents on both sides).

Certain diseases, such as breast cancer, are inherited along gender-based lines, as are X-linked disorders such as hemophilia, in which males but not females are affected. Some conditions appear only in alternate generations, which is why it helps to know your exact relationship to any relative exhibiting signs of the ailment. The ethnicity and regional ancestry -- Northern Europe, Ireland, or Taiwan, for example -- of your family members is also very important, as certain conditions are linked to specific populations or locations.

You can collect information from relatives by giving them written questionnaires to complete or by conducting telephone or face-to-face interviews. In person, there's a chance to hear more details and to ask follow-up questions, says Debra Collins, a certified genetic counselor and associate clinical professor and director of the Genetics Education Center at the University of Kansas Medical Center. But some family members, she says, may be more comfortable writing things down than talking about them.

If you decide to organize the information you've gathered, the American Medical Association can get you started with their online personal and pediatric health history forms and a family health history diagram -- a tree-like diagram with special symbols for various life events such as births, deaths, marriages, adoptions, and illnesses. However you approach the subject, be sure to keep your records updated with new information about the current generation.

Now for the Stumbling Blocks

Sometimes you will run into problems as you attempt to collect information. First, memories can be faulty. Older relatives may simply have trouble remembering the details or exact diagnosis of someone else's -- or even their own -- illness. Second, some family members may want to cover up embarrassing details. Third, people may simply not know the facts. Family members may have heard more than one explanation for the same problem, says Debra Collins, or may not have shared medical details with each other in the first place. Misinformation can also be passed along until it's assumed to be true.

That leaves you with some discretionary work to do -- pressing relatives for more details, say, or adding some question marks to the chart. If everyone says Grandpa died of lung cancer -- and someone even quotes the family doctor to that effect -- it's more likely to be so than if one person points to lung cancer, another to pneumonia, and a third says that he just "up and died."

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