Thanksgiving Fact-Finding: Learn Your Family Health History This Holiday Season

November 22, 2022 | by Jodi McCaffrey
Thanksgiving Fact-Finding: Learn Your Family Health History This Holiday Season

You may have your mother’s nose or your father’s smile. But could you also have inherited their high blood pressure, diabetes or genetic condition? If you’re pregnant or thinking about getting pregnant, Thanksgiving provides the perfect opportunity to learn more about your family health history and how it may affect your pregnancy journey.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) define family health history as a record of the diseases and health conditions in your family. If you have a family health history that includes a genetic condition, birth defect, blood disorder, newborn screening disorder or developmental disability, you might be more likely to have a baby with this condition. By knowing if your family has this history, you can work with your health care provider to address potential health problems early for your pregnancy.

“There are multiple factors that impact your family health history,” explained Megan Varvoutis, M.D., a maternal-fetal medicine (MFM) specialist with Obstetrix of Colorado. “It can include medical issues, like diabetes, bleeding or clotting disorders and high blood pressure, as well as genetic issues, like developmental delays, birth defects and certain conditions that are influenced by race or culture. It’s important to know what conditions people in your family have experienced because it will determine what, if any, genetic screening tests you should have.”

Genetic Conditions that Can Impact Your Pregnancy

Hereditary conditions are inherited through families and can be assessed with a carrier screening. These conditions can include:

  • Cystic fibrosis, which affects breathing and digestion
  • Fragile X syndrome, which causes mild to severe intellectual disabilities
  • Sickle cell disease, a blood disorder that impacts African-Americans
  • Tay Sachs disease, a condition that impacts people of Ashkenazi and Eastern European Jewish descent that can damage the brain and spinal cord
  • Thalassemia, a blood disorder that impacts red blood cells

If a genetic condition runs in your family, your doctor can discuss the various testing options available to you, including invasive and non-invasive test.

Tips for Collecting Your Family Health History

If possible, collect as much information about your family health history before you conceive. Even if you don’t know all of the information, share what you do know with your provider. This information can help your doctor decide which screening tests you need and when. Knowing your partner’s family medical history is important, too, particularly if there is a history of any genetic conditions or prior issues with other children he has had.

To get the most complete picture of the possible health risks to you and your baby, the CDC recommends that you:

  • Gather family history information before seeing the doctor.
  • Use the U.S. Surgeon General’s My Family Health Portrait to keep track of the information you collect.
  • Collect information about your parents, sisters, brothers, half-sisters, half-brothers, children, grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews.
  • Talk to those family members, if possible, to find out their specific diagnoses, including if there’s a history of blood clots or bleeding disorders in the family.
  • Ask for a copy of their genetic or diagnostic test results, if any, to share with your doctor.
  • If possible, look at death certificates and family medical records to learn of any major medical conditions, causes of death, age at disease diagnosis, age at death and ethnic background.
  • Tell your doctor if you have any family members with a genetic condition, chromosomal abnormality, developmental disability, birth defect, newborn screening disorder or other problem at birth or during infancy or childhood, especially if you have had a previous pregnancy or child affected by one of these conditions.
  • Let your doctor know if you or any first-degree relatives have had a previous premature birth, miscarriage or stillbirth.

Be sure to let your doctor know if you are adopted. The CDC offers tips for trying to track down your family health history.

“We encourage patients to do the best they can to learn about their medical backgrounds,” said Dr. Varvoutis. “The first step is talking to your parents or siblings. Often, a patient will text a family member while in my office so we can collect as much medical data as possible.”

Genetic Testing Can Help Find Answers

If a genetic condition runs in your family, you might be a carrier for that condition. You also might be a carrier for genetic conditions that are more common in your racial or ethnic group. Your doctor might ask if you want a carrier screening. He or she may also recommend genetic counseling if you’ve had:

  • Trouble getting pregnant
  • Two or more miscarriages
  • A previous pregnancy or child with a genetic condition or birth defect
  • A baby who died at less than 1 year of age

Results from these tests could impact your pregnancy planning, so getting tested before you get pregnant can give you time to think about what the results mean for you and consider all your options.

“It’s important to note that not all genetic tests are the same,” Dr. Varvoutis explained. “Some are more accurate than others, and there are risks and benefits to each type of test. While a screening test may tell you that you’re at a higher or lower risk for a condition, it does not mean you’ve been diagnosed with that condition or that your baby will develop it.”