Find a Genetic Counselor

Know Your Family History

What to look for in your family history

1. Ethnicity

It's important to know where your ancestors came from because some genetic disorders occur more frequently in one ethnic group than in others: Tay-Sachs is more common among Ashkenazi Jews and French Canadians, Sickle Cell among African Americans, and Beta-Thalassemia among Greeks and Italians, to name just a few.

[Pop-up link to table: populations with increased risk of genetic disorders]

Try to trace your ethnic heritage on both your mother's and your father's side of the family, and note in particular whether your parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents come from a higher-risk ethnic group.

2. Health Problems

Knowing the illnesses that have affected your parents, siblings, and other relatives will help your genetic counselor assess your risk for an inherited disorder. Starting with your first-degree relatives and moving outwards, look for evidence of:

  • Pregnancy losses or stillbirths
  • Mental retardation or developmental delays
  • Birth defects
  • Children who died young
  • Postive test results for a genetic condition
  • Cancer
  • Heart disease, high blood pressure, or stroke
  • Diabetes
  • Asthma
  • Mental illness
  • Kidney disease
  • Alcoholism
  • Vision or hearing loss at a young age

Try to collect as many details as you can about any illness you discover. Write down:

  • The affected relative's sex and date of birth
  • Relationship to you (e.g. maternal aunt, first cousin on father's side)
  • Age at diagnosis
  • Age at death and cause of death (if deceased)
  • Details of the health problem
  • Whether the affected family member smoked, was overweight, or had a history of substance abuse

The more you know about your family's medical history, the better you'll be able to take charge of your own health and your children's.