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Genetic research is creating new ways for people to take action and prevent disease and new ways to treat disease through personalized medicine.

Why is my family health history important?

We have known for a long time that common diseases like heart disease, asthma, cancer, and diabetes can run in families. Rare diseases like hemophilia, cystic fibrosis, and sickle cell anemia also run in families. For example, if a parent has high blood pressure, his or her child is more likely to have high blood pressure as an adult.

Learning about the health history of your family and sharing this information with your health care provider can help you learn whether you have an increased chance of getting some common diseases.

Your health care provider can then give you individualized and specific education about how to:

  • Check regularly for the disease.

  • Follow a healthy diet.

  • Get regular exercise.

  • Avoid smoking tobacco and too much alcohol.

  • Get specific genetic testing that can help with diagnosis and treatment.

How do I find a genetic professional?

To help people use family history to improve their health, the U.S. Surgeon General started a national public health campaign called the U.S. Surgeon General's Family History Initiative. This goal of this campaign is to have all American families learn more about their family health history.

My Family Health Portrait is a tool from the U.S. Surgeon General's Family History Initiative that you can find on the Web. The tool helps you gather and organize your own family health history. You can find it in either English or Spanish. Using any computer with an Internet connection, you can build a drawing of your family tree and make a chart of your family health history. Both the chart and the drawing can be printed and shared with your family members or your health care provider.

Can knowing about genetics help treat disease?

Every year, more than two million Americans have serious side effects from prescription medicines and as many as one hundred thousand die. A "one-size-fits-all" approach to medicine might lead to some of these side effects, since all people are different. Genetic research is helping us figure out how individual people will respond to medicines. This type of research is called "pharmacogenetics" and "pharmagenomics."

For more information about Pharmacogenetics and Pharmacogenomics go to:


How is genetic information used to treat disease?

A person's genetic makeup affects how their body breaks down certain medicines. Genetic testing can examine certain liver enzymes in a person to find out how their body breaks down and removes medicines from the body. Because these liver enzymes are less active in some people, they are less able to break down and get rid of some medicines. This can lead to serious side effects. This type of testing is being used to find the right dose of certain medicines, such as antidepressants that are used to treat some mental illnesses.

  • There is now a test to find out whether a medicine called Herceptin will be an effective treatment in breast cancer. This test looks "estrogen receptors" in tumors.

  • Children with a common type of childhood leukemia can be tested to find the right doses of chemotherapy treatment.

What are some concerns?

Some people have concerns about using genetic information in the treatment of disease. These concerns include:

  • Tailor-made medicines might be more expensive

  • Not everyone might have access to new treatments

  • Keeping genetic information private

  • Possible discrimination at work and from health insurance companies

  • Need for more information about this type of medicine

Last updated: September 6, 2018