Maybe you know that your mother had diabetes late in life, or that your father died in his sleep, presumably because of a silent heart attack or stroke. But how about the rest of your family health history? How much do you know? How much do you need to know?
The winter holidays offer a chance to start gathering some of that information. Since 2004, Thanksgiving has been designated by the United States Surgeon General as Family Health History Day. Since it’s a day likely to bring together families, it can also be a time to talk to relatives and start filling in those gaps in your family medical history.
According to one survey, 96 percent of Americans said they know the importance of family medical history in identifying risk factors for various medical conditions. Most of us, however, know very little about the health problems of even our closest relatives.
The family history that concerns you most includes your close family relatives: your parents, siblings, children, grandparents and uncles and aunts.
Most chronic medical conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes and arthritis tend to run in families. Some of this is due to inheritance, and some to environment. By knowing your heredity, you can do something about altering the environmental factors.
And there are some disorders, such as hemophilia, cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia that have a strong genetic component. You and your doctor should know about these and monitor your health closely to spot early signs.
To help you in your task, the Surgeon General has an online tool, “My Family Health Portrait.” It takes 15 to 30 minutes to fill out, depending on the size of your family. The form first asks for information about you: your height, weight, race, ethnicity, whether you were born a twin, any diseases you have had and the age at which you were diagnosed.
On the next page, you are asked for information about your closest blood relatives:
• Are they alive?
• At what age did they die?
• What was the cause of death?
• What other diseases did they have?
Fill out the form to the best of your ability; it is your family health pedigree. Take a copy of it with you to your family holiday celebration. Others may be able to provide information you don’t have or to correct anything that's not quite right.
You might want to prepare by contacting relatives ahead of time and explaining your family medical history project. Stress the benefits you all can gain. Some may want to fill out their own family health portraits and bring them to the holiday gathering to compare notes, but respect their privacy and feelings if they don’t wish to participate.
Whether you write out questions and pass them around or simply talk informally, here are some issues that should be addressed:
• Do you have any chronic medical conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure or diabetes?
• Have you had any other serious illnesses such as cancer or stroke? How old were you when you developed these problems?
• What medications are you currently taking?
Your family medical history is not your destiny, but it can give you some important information that could help you plan preventive action. Talking with your health care provider about your family health history can help you stay healthy.
“My Family Health Portrait” can be found online at https://familyhistory.hhs.gov/.
— Janice Early is Vice President of Marketing and Communications for Lawrence Memorial Hospital, which is a major sponsor of WellCommons.