YOU would probably be asked about your family’s health history when you go for your medical check-up. Your doctors, especially if you’re seeing them for the first time, would always ask if anyone in your family has diabetes, certain types of cancer, asthma, hypertension (high blood pressure) and heart diseases.

You would also be asked these questions when you’re taking on an insurance policy and even certain jobs.

Why do they always ask? The most obvious reason would be to see what sort of risks they’d be taking with you if you have a strong family history of these diseases. Some insurance companies would disqualify you from certain policies if you have already been diagnosed with these illnesses.

When my firstborn, Omar, was diagnosed with a severe form of epilepsy called West Syndrome, I was always asked if anyone in the family suffered from epilepsy. Every single doctor I met (and there were many) asked this question. My answer was always the same, and consistent — I tell the same story to every single doctor who asks, even till today, 26 years later. I used to find these repeat questions annoying but over the years I’ve come to understand their significance and importance.

UNDERSTANDING YOUR FAMILY’S HISTORY

I also learnt that when doctors ask for your family’s health history, it usually covers your parents, your grandparents on both sides, and your siblings. If any of them have passed away, you should reveal their age and cause of death.

Family members who are not affected by your health history would be step-parents and step-siblings, adoptive parents and siblings and other members not related by blood.

Looked at from another angle, it is good for you to know your family’s health history for your own sake. Even if you are still in good health and have not been diagnosed with any of these diseases, such knowledge will be helpful for your personal risk management.

It also helps the doctor to keep an eye out when reading the test results of your annual medical check-ups. For example, if your mother, her sisters or your female cousins have had breast cancer, the doctor may recommend that you do your mammogram and other tests earlier and more regularly, instead of waiting for you to turn 40.

Knowing that diabetes runs in your family can help the doctor monitor your health in terms of your weight gain or loss, certain conditions that predisposes you to it such as insulin resistance and even your eyesight. Your doctor may be able to zoom in on your possible problems faster if they knew the history even before certain symptoms that you’re not aware of show up. It can help if the doctor asks the right questions.

However, it doesn’t always mean that just because your mother or father suffered from these illnesses that you’d automatically suffer from them too. It’s just that your chances may be higher than other people’s. There are certain lifestyles and traits that you’ve learnt and “inherited” from your parents that could affect your health.

Remember that meme? The one that said: “It’s not that diabetes, heart disease and obesity runs in your family. It’s that no one runs in your family.”

INHERITED GENES

According to medicinenet.com, “Some genetic disorders are inherited from the parents, while other genetic diseases are caused by acquired changes or mutations in a preexisting gene or group of genes. Mutations can occur either randomly or due to some environmental exposure.”

Lifestyle and habits aside, there are thousands of known genetic disorders that are caused by inheriting an altered gene.

It could be anything from blood disorders like thalassemia, cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anaemia, to sexually transmitted diseases like chlamydia trachomatis and syphilis. Other issues that can be passed down include blood clots, arthritis, depression and asthma.

Genetic disorders are caused by altered or faulty genes or set of genes. There are specialists who can help you determine if some of this is dominant or dormant. Your doctor may also ask about your ethnicity because people whose roots are from certain parts of the world are more likely to have certain conditions.

Knowing your family’s health history is not only important for your own reference and helps you become more proactive about your health, but also when you’re caring for a loved one who is ill. It could be your parents and older relatives, or it could be your children, nieces, nephews and their children.

For various reasons, you may not have all these answers. Don’t worry too much about it, your doctor may guide you on what you need to find out. You can even take this a step further by doing the DNA test and getting your genes tested. This is something you could do if you have certain risks that you may pass down to your children or future children.

Putri Juneita Johari volunteers for the Special Children Society of Ampang.

She can be reached at juneitajohari@yahoo.com.

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