My mother was adopted and has never felt the desire to contact her birth mother. Recently, however, she discovered she has high cholesterol - which we understand can be hereditary - and she now wants to know if there's a history of any other genetic illnesses that may put her health at risk, not to mention mine. As I'm in my thirties and planning on having kids, I'm also concerned about passing any health risks on to my own children. I know I can have a cholesterol test, but how would my mother and I find out about more serious illnesses? Mum knows nothing of her mother's medical history. Is there any way of getting this information, and must it involve contacting her birth mother directly?
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The adoption consultant
Your mother could write to the NHS Adoptions Section [PO Box 106, Southport PR8 2WA] for advice on tracking down the records. Or, provided she wasn't adopted privately, she could contact the agency that arranged her adoption, which may have notes on her mother's medical history. I have seen situations where birth mothers have contacted their agency to say they have a genetic illness so that information can be there waiting - and once it's verified the information, the agency may agree to pass it on to the adopted adult or adoptive family. She could also contact her birth mother via an intermediary agency - her local authority's adoptions section can suggest options. But first she must be sure she is emotionally ready to do so. Meeting with an adoption worker will help her explore the issues and possible outcomes. For more information, go to www.adoptionsearchreunion.co.uk.
Julia Feast is a development policy and research consultant for the British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF)
Dr Fred Kavalier
Luckily there is a way for your mother to discover if she is carrying a hereditary disease - she could have a genetic test. Unfortunately this would definitely involve her finding her birth mother's medical records, because such tests are usually only performed on people with a strong family history of a specific genetic disease, such as haemophilia or muscular dystrophy. The tests available on the NHS are only offered after a full assessment of the patient and birth family's health. If your mother manages to trace her birth family's medical records, discovers some history of disease and wants to go ahead, she could talk to a genetic counsellor (her GP can refer her) to assess risks and suggest options. But whether she decides to delve into her past or not, there is probably little reason to worry: genetic diseases are rare. With breast cancer, for example, only about 5 per cent is genetic.
Dr Fred Kavalier is a geneticist and consultant at Guy's Hospital, London
The clinical psychologist
Professor Roger Baker
The question for you and your mother is: if there is a history of genetic disease in the family, is it better psychologically to know or not to know? Some people deal with anxiety better by not knowing what's going on; others need all the information to reassure themselves. But knowledge can bring stress. If your mother discovers no genetic diseases in the family, the stress is dissolved. But discovering there is a genuine risk can bring stress, and stress can impact on health: worrying about the possibility of getting a hereditary disease might speed up the onset of illness. Keeping things in perspective is key. It would also be interesting to know what's really driving your mother's desire to find out about her birth mother. Is it because she feels that you're at risk? On the face of it, high cholesterol wouldn't be a big enough reason for that; if she had a rare form of cancer, it would be more understandable.
Professor Roger Baker is a consultant clinical psychologist and the author of Emotional Processing: Healing Through Feeling (£7.99, Lion Hudson)