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Exploring Your Family History

  • Many different health conditions can have a hereditary component, which is also referred to as family history.
  • A genetic counselor can help discuss your family history.
  • Genetic counselors can also review signs, symptoms and causes of the condition, review genetic testing options and go over treatment options.

Many different health conditions can have a hereditary component. These include several types of heart disease, mental illnesses, Alzheimer’s disease, birth defects etc. In some cases, the genetic condition is multifactorial (i.e.) there are environmental, lifestyle and genetic factors that contribute to development of disease. If you are worried about a genetic condition in your family, genetic counseling can be beneficial in helping you determine if you or others in your family are at increased risk to develop the condition.

A genetic counselor can:

  • Discuss your family history and review the signs, symptoms and causes of the condition
  • Explain the risks, benefits and limitations of any available genetic testing options
  • Review treatment, screening and management options associated with the condition
  • Help you find support groups or provide referrals to other healthcare professionals if needed

Gathering Your Family History

When you meet with a genetic counselor, it’s important to bring all of the information you have about your family health history.

A good way to start is to create a family tree that includes you, any siblings and/or children you may have, and your biological parents. If possible, expand your family tree to include any nieces, nephews, aunts and uncles, grandparents and cousins.

Then you should try to gather information about your family’s medical history, including:

  • Age or date of birth, and cause of death for those who have died
  • Medical problems any of them had and at what age (even approximately) they were affected, including:
    • Abnormal sexual maturation or delayed puberty
    • Autism
    • Birth defects (spina bifida, cleft palate, heart defects, etc.)
    • Cancer
    • Diabetes
    • Heart abnormalities
    • Infertility
    • Kidney disease
    • Learning problems or intellectual disabilities
    • Mental illness
    • Multiple pregnancy losses or babies who died in infancy
    • Stroke
    • Unexplained medical conditions
    • Unique skin spots or patterns (cafe-au-laits, shagreen patches, port wine stains, etc.)
    • Very tall or short stature compared to rest of the family
    • Vision or hearing loss at a young age
    • Young/early deaths due to known or unknown medical conditions
  • For those who have medical problems, include any information that might be helpful, such as whether they smoke, exercise, are overweight, etc.

Family History Resources

For additional resources related to your privacy related to genetic testing, visit the Resources to Help You section of the site and use the "Family History" filter.