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HeadWay, Issue #179 Why a Family Medical History?
July 22, 2019

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In this issue:

Family Medical History and Migraine

Say what?! Recessive Genes

Family Medical History and Migraine

I admit, I've been very lazy when it comes to collecting a proper family medical history. But I've been reminded again just how important this is - important for people with migraine in the family.

So here's your quick power-guide to the benefits and pitfalls of knowing the health history of your family!

The Dangers of "Knowing" Headache History

First, a warning. "Knowing" about the history of headache in the family has led to some unwise reactions, such as:
  • My mother and sisters have the same thing - it's "normal" (no it isn't!)
  • A doctor told my aunt there was "no treatment", so it must be the same for me (no it isn't!)
  • My dad has sinus headaches just like I do (are you sure the diagnosis was correct?)
So beware! It's good to know - as we'll see - but dangerous to rely on a former misdiagnosis or fatalistic attitude.

What use is a Family Medical History?

Few people realize that a family health history can be a huge benefit to your family, and you personally. For example, knowing your health history...
  1. Helps avoid unnecessary tests, which can be expensive and at time misleading.
  2. Helps your doctor get to the correct diagnosis faster. Early diagnosis can lead to better treatment.
  3. Let's say you're very likely to get a disease, because it's highly genetic. It still helps to know, because you can lower your risks, lessen the impact of the disease, and be on the cutting edge of new treatments.
  4. You can help your children and other family members be aware and find early, better treatment.
  5. Being at risk of one condition (e.g. migraine) may mean you're also at risk of other conditions (e.g. heart conditions). A health profile is much more than a simple yes-or-no for one disease. For example, watch for conditions that often go along with migraine - depression, heart disease and epilepsy are great examples.
  6. Not all migraine or headache conditions are alike. A family history may help you diagnose your type of headache, and so find better treatment


You might be convinced that knowing a family medical history will empower you to get better treatment yourself - but now things get complicated. What if I know very little about my biological family? What about sperm or egg donations?

Let's start with the basics. What should you record? Here are some key things you should be thinking about:
  • alcoholism/drug use
  • allergies/possible allergies
  • cancer
  • diabetes
  • Epilepsy/seizures
  • gastrointestinal disease/syndromes
  • headache/migraine
  • heart disease/stroke
  • mental disease
  • osteoporosis
  • complications in pregnancy
  • thyroid conditions
Remember to record, if possible, ethnicity, gender, and time frames (how long did the relative have this disease?).

Find a way to record the information. There are electronic tools, such as genieMD. In the USA there's the heavily promoted My Family Health Portrait. If you're concerned about a company or government caring for your records, use your own method. Even My Family Health Portrait has a printable paper version to guide you (it's not country specific).

Now - getting the information. The best way is personal contact with blood relatives. Email, talk, message, etc. But sometimes family members will be unwilling or unavailable. Record what you can, and hunt for the rest. Even death records can be useful - go back to grandparents, great-grandparents, and even another generation back if you can.

Things get trickier with adoption, sperm donation, etc. Check with your family first to see what information you do have. Then check with your local government to see if you can access more medical information.

Although I'm not convinced of the usefulness of DNA testing to find ancestry and ethnicity in the distant past, it can be useful for finding close relatives, and it's another option that may be available to you.

Final thoughts

This is a long newsletter but a brief introduction to an important topic. Again, knowledge is power in this case. But if you can only access limited information, don't panic. Find what you can. If there's a close family member who loves research and solving mysteries, delegate! And use what you know the get better care, now and in the future.

To learn more...

Here are some more resources to get you started:

Say what?! Recessive Genes

Migraine is partially genetic - in other words, we know that many types of migraine are caused or influenced by genetic differences. However, environmental factors also play a role. If an identical twin has migraine, chances are increased that the other twin with have migraine - but it's not guaranteed.

There's a lot of talk about dominant, co-dominant, and recessive genes. If someone has two copies of a gene from two parents, they may inherit a condition. If they only have one copy, they may be a "carrier", but not have the condition.

But when it comes to most conditions, things get a lot more complicated. Why? Because conditions like migraine may be influenced by multiple genetic factors as well as environment, for example. So in most cases, medical family history is an excellent tool, but it doesn't write your destiny.

Read more at - What are Dominant and Recessive? and Migraine: Why Genetic Studies haven’t Solved all our Problems.

Thanks for reading!  Remember, if you have feedback or ideas for future issues, visit the HeadWay MailRoom.  Your password is nomoache.
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