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A Different Kind of Family Tree: Building Your Family Health History

It’s a common saying that you can pick your friends but you can’t pick your family. To take things one step further, you definitely can’t do much about the family medical history you inherit from your relatives, which includes the good, the bad and perhaps even the ugly.

Since 2004, Thanksgiving Day has also served as National Family Health History Day as designated by the Surgeon General and several agencies within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HSS). The intention was to get family members around the holiday table talking about their shared health history, especially about hereditary diseases and conditions.

While families often pass down physical characteristics (that nose!), health problems may also appear in subsequent generations, ranging from common issues like heart disease, cancer and diabetes to rare diseases such as hemophilia, cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia.

Melita Williams, M.D., family medicine physician with Texas Health Physicians Group, says knowing a patient’s family history can help his or her doctor provide the best possible care.

“When you know the family health history it can help physicians identify possible health risks or predispositions a patient may have based on genetic links, environmental exposures and/or social conditions that can influence a person’s health,” she explains. “Knowledge of medical conditions such as early heart disease, cancer, diabetes or autoimmune conditions may influence when a person begins screening exams for those conditions or how a physician may consider working up certain symptoms a patient presents with.”

According to HHS, 96 percent of Americans believe knowing their health history is important, but only one-third of them have ever actually tried to compile and record this information. Thankfully, HHS has created a web-based tool, “My Family Health Portrait,” which walks users through how to enter their family history (which takes 15-20 minutes), share online with relatives and print out for doctor visits.

Williams says to start considering the health of immediate family members and then go from there.

“Start with your immediate family and encourage each member to have routine health examinations,” she suggests. “If family history is not known, a physician that knows the history of each individual can sometimes decipher trends in health conditions and help identify risks for others. Going back two generations can be helpful, but start with what you are able to obtain. Some information is better than no information.”

If putting together a family health history seems overwhelming or a person just doesn’t know where to begin, the Family History Initiative provides tips for how to get the conversation going.

First, decide who to talk to and make a list of the names of people you’d like to include in your health history.

  • First level: parents, siblings and children
  • Second level: grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and half-siblings
  • Third level: great uncles, great aunts and cousins

Then write down the questions you want to ask so you get consistent information from all participants. Possible questions might include the following:

  • Do you have any chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, high blood pressure or diabetes? (If yes, how old were you when you developed these illnesses?)
  • Have you had any other serious illnesses like cancer or stroke? (If yes, how old were you when you developed these illnesses?)
  • Have you or your partner had any difficulties with pregnancies?
  • What medications are you currently taking?
  • What is our family’s ancestry? What country did we come from?
  • Has anyone in the family had learning or developmental disabilities?
  • What illnesses did our late grandparents have? How old were they when they died? What caused their deaths?

Next, find a good time to talk. Perhaps you can start collecting relatives’ health histories at a family reunion or holiday gathering like Thanksgiving. If you can’t visit with a family member in person, interviews may also be done via phone, email or mail.

Before you ask any questions, let your relatives know what you are doing and why. Explain that by creating a family health history, it benefits all members of the family by providing more information to their physicians. Remember that although you are family, health issues can be complicated and sensitive. Respect each relative’s transparency level, realizing that any information is better than no information.

Once you put together your family’s health history in the “My Family Health Portrait” tool, try to fill in any gaps and remember to keep the information current as children are born and family members become diagnosed with health issues. Discuss your history with your physician, looking for ways to prevent illness if possible, diagnose conditions when necessary and keep an eye on future problems.

Williams says the ability to potentially help improve the health of an entire family is why gathering a medical history is so important.

“There are many dynamics to a person’s health but knowing other family members’ health conditions can allow the physician to be more sympathetic and understanding of how those health or social situations (such as cancer or mental illness) can adversely affect the emotional or physical health of another family member in the provider’s practice,” she says. “It is one of the rewarding aspects of family medicine that I hold dear and allows me to positively impact the health of multiple generations.”

If you’re in need of a primary care provider to act as a partner in your health goals, Texas Health Resource’s “Find a Physician” tool can help you find the right doctor for you or your family!

1 Comment

  • Melissa says:

    This is an excellent idea. I have rare disease in the family, one coming from my cousin, then my father and now my nephew. My cousin and nephew have good outcomes due to open conversation, not so lucky was my father, disease to advanced.

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