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I am young and healthy. Why do I need to know my family health history?

  • 3/18/2019 6:30:00 AM
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I am young and healthy. Why do I need to know my family health history?

Ming Li, MS

Angelina Jolie, an Oscar-winning actress, announced to have a surgery to remove her ovaries and fallopian tubes to reduce her risk of developing ovarian cancer in 2015. She has already undertook a preventative double mastectomy earlier. She made this difficult decision because she has a strong family health history (FHH) of ovarian cancer. FHH, a record of the diseases and health conditions in one’s family, plays a significant role in early disease detection and prevention. By further undergoing genetic testing, she discovered she carries a copy of BRCA1 gene, which leads to a high risk for both breast and ovarian cancer. Angelina Jolie’s story provides multiple opportunities to educate people about the importance of knowing their FHH.

In recent times, FHH has been proposed as an “identification marker” to classify an individual’s disease risk level. For example, having a first-degree relative with type 2 diabetes significantly elevates individual’s risk to around 2-5 times than average population risk; having a first-degree relative diagnosed with colon cancer before age of 50 will put an individual into high risk of colon cancer. Based on that risk level, doctors can provide personalized disease prevention recommendations (e.g., lifestyle modifications, earlier and more frequently screening, and/or genetic evaluation and testing) to reduce the disease risk.

However, many people lack awareness and knowledge of FHH and never have collected their information from family members. A national survey showed that only a few people (29.8%) reported actively collecting information to develop their FHH. Previous research also indicated that college students experienced barriers to collect their family medical information. Several common misunderstanding and concerns were: “I am healthy, it is not necessary for me to know my FHH,” “I don’t know what questions to ask” “obtaining my FHH will make me feel destined to get diseases that run in my family.” No previous education on the topic of FHH leads to the lack of FHH knowledge among college students.

Although college students are considered as a “healthy population,” they should not be ignored from FHH education because the incidence of young-onset chronic diseases (e.g., colorectal cancer and diabetes) is increasing. College students who are not fully aware of their FHH may not recognize health threats. In addition, with the advances in genetic testing, college students can benefit from knowing their FHH before pursuing preventive care.

My long-term research goal is to improve college students’ knowledge and use of FHH in disease prevention by developing FHH educational materials at the university settings. Before that, it is necessary to understand college students’ current use and perceptions toward FHH. I developed an online survey to investigate college students’ attitude, self-efficacy, outcome expectancy, perceived barriers, perceived benefits, intention, and behavior of FHH information seeking. This study will contribute to the development of future’s FHH intervention/education for college students by providing important preliminary data.

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