Family genetics – what you should tell your family

Medical conditions are often passed down through families.

Man mapping out his health history for his family

Medical conditions are often passed down through families. So, what information should you be passing down the family tree? 

There are two ways genetic disorders are passed down through families. A faulty gene, which directly causes a problem either at birth or later in life, can be passed from parent to child. Or a faulty gene, which causes genetic susceptibility, is passed on. Environmental factors such as diet and exposure to chemicals can then combine with this susceptibility to cause a disorder.

What should you tell your family about your health?
The short answer is everything. Even if your children are completely healthy, it is still important to tell them about your health history, as they can develop disorders later in life, or pass the faulty genes on to their children. If you feel uncomfortable, writing it down in a clinical list can help you to have a clear, open discussion about any health issues which may affect them.

Just because you have a health issue does not mean you will always pass it on to your child. It can simply make your child more likely to also suffer from it. Likewise, not all of our health problems are passed on from our parents. When you sit down and make a list of your health issues, think about things which affected you when you were both a child and a teenager, as well as in your adult life. Some health problems which you should tell your family about include:

  • Heart conditions
  • Diabetes
  • Thyroid and other hormonal problems
  • Mental health problems, including depression
  • Extreme menopause symptoms
  • Arthritis
  • Autoimmune disease
  • Cancer, especially breast and prostate cancer. Scientists now believe that if a father has had prostate cancer it increases his daughter’s chances of getting breast cancer, and the reverse for mothers and sons. It is important not to let gender stop you from telling your family about a problem.

This list is by no means exhaustive. It simply shows how your genetics can increase your likelihood of getting many of Australia’s most common health problems. 

What do your genetic markers tell you?
A genetic marker is a section of your DNA. It is always located on the same part of the chromosome, which can be used to determine your genetic characteristics. For example, scientists know which part of your DNA to look at in order to ?nd out whether you have brown hair or blonde. The hair colour genetic marker is the bit of your DNA which tells your body which colour to make your hair, and it is always found in the same location on everyone’s DNA.

Genetic markers can also tell a specialist whether you are more likely to suffer from particular health problems. Scientists have not yet mapped out what all our genetic markers mean, however, there are some genetic markers which they know to be associated with certain conditions. Two such markers which have been in the news recently are the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations. Women who carry these gene markers are known to be more likely to suffer from breast and ovarian cancer.

What you should be tested for?
Genetic testing is increasing in popularity in Australia, however, testing for most conditions is not yet common. You may know that it is common practice to test all babies in Australia for cystic fibrosis. What you may not know is that this is a genetic test, where scientists look for the cystic fibrosis genetic marker. For those aged over 50 the most common genetic tests are for cancer markers. If you already have a specific cancer which is known to be inherited, your doctor may suggest that you have a blood test to attempt to identify the faulty gene. If it can be found, your family can then also be tested to see if they have also inherited the faulty gene. If they have, it gives them early warning to look out for signs of that particular cancer.

The other common cancer tests are for known mutations, such as the BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations, which are associated with breast cancer. If your family has a history of breast cancer, for example if both your mother and grandmother suffered from it, then you can be tested to find out if you carry these gene mutations. Again, this gives you early warning that you are at an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Genetic testing can be costly and take considerable time to complete, so it is important to discuss the pros and cons with your doctor before going down this path.

Your family health tree
A family health tree is set out a lot like a regular family tree, with extra space in which to include details of health conditions. Writing out your family health tree can be a great way to notice new trends in your family. It might turn out that urinary tract infections are a common occurrence for the women in your family, or that all the men on your grandfather’s side go bald at a young age. Making a family health tree can also be a useful way to start the conversation with other family members. A family health tree should include the following information about each of your family members:

  • Name
  • Gender
  • Year of birth and, where applicable, death
  • Age at death
  • Any major health conditions, and the year in which they began.

Once you have created it, you might also like to show your family health tree to your GP. He or she may notice trends which to you seem trivial or harmless. It is also a good idea to make copies for your family members, as it provides an invaluable record.





    COMMENTS

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    KSS
    19th Apr 2016
    12:38pm
    Genetic testing is all very well and good but I'd warn people of the dangers of doing so. Just because there may be a genetic predisposition to a particular disease or condition doesn't mean that illness will develop or that there is nothing you can do to prevent it. Also what people may not know is if you have a genetic test and you are shown to have a genetic tendency, this could well affect you for the rest of your life even if you do not actually develop the disease or condition. You will HAVE to inform insurance companies every time you take out any kind of life, health or travel insurance. Good luck getting any insurance after that.
    Anonymous
    19th Apr 2016
    7:48pm
    KSS, what you are saying in regards to having a predisposition to a disease, condition, or malady and HAVING to inform ANYONE about it when taking out travel insurance is misinformation. Where did you get this rot?
    KSS
    19th Apr 2016
    8:53pm
    If you have genetic testing and it comes back positive you MUST declare it to insurance companies e.g. the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes for breast cancer. This is part of the reason people are nervous about the digitising of medical records and who would get access to them.
    Retired Knowall
    21st Apr 2016
    9:03am
    Wrong KSS, travel insurance only requires you to declare Pre Existing Conditions not your tendency to get the condition.
    Young Simmo
    19th Apr 2016
    1:11pm
    This is a really curly question for me because. My father died on his 43rd birthday in 1953 of a heart attack, I always thought I would be history by 50 years. Now at 76, 33 years past his 43, I am starting to think I might have my Grandfathers genes on Mum's side, and he died at 96 with a pipe still in his mouth. Warning to everybody around me, "I still have another 20 years of annoyance left in me", thanks to the Triple Bypass.
    I have been saying for years, "Life is a Lottery".
    Rosy
    23rd Apr 2016
    11:36am
    It might interest you to know that if you have a parent who died early in life and you think you will also die early, there is a psychologically recognised condition which I can't remember the name of but it definitely exists. My father died at 32 and I was certain that I would too but this condition was explained to me back then.
    Megsiemay
    19th Apr 2016
    10:39pm
    As a former nurse, I feel that genetic testing has it's place. My family tree, where possible, has causes of death and/or medical conditions. Personally, I have had doctors freak when I mention that my Dad died of a coronary at 41 - until I show them the family tree. It's the men in our family that die early due to cardiac disease. Looking back, their lifestyle wasn't great either - some of the food I was given as a child, I wouldn't eat in a pink fit now! So whilst I still cart a bit of weight, I do try to eat healthily, go to the gym 2 -3 times a week and dance once a week. It would have been nice to be told of some of the genetic predispositions in the family earlier but those sorts of things "weren't talked about"! In my family, anyway.
    Rosy
    21st Apr 2016
    12:07pm
    KSS I'm sorry to say that you are incorrect on this.
    I travel overseas every year and I have a PRE existing condition which must be revealed. I have my Whole Genome Sequencing test done and yes, it shows I have a predisposition to a couple of other medical conditions but as far as the Travel Insurance people are concerned, it's only the PRE existing one they are interested in.


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