Time to Talk About Family Health History

Healthcare professionals have known for a long time that common diseases like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, as well as rarer diseases like hemophilia, cystic fibrosis, and sickle-cell anemia, can run in families. If one generation of a family has high blood pressure, it is not unusual for the next generation to have similarly high blood pressure. Tracing the illnesses suffered by your parents, grandparents, and other blood relatives can help your doctor predict the disorders to which you may be at risk and take action to keep you and your family healthy.
As we get older, the risk for different medical conditions grows. However, when there is a history of certain conditions in your family, we will make different recommendations for testing, and our diagnostic decisions will change based on medical issues in your family.
Getting the entire family history is important. Every patient has their own story to tell, and knowing about their family makes it even more interesting. For preventive care, it is important to know about diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and cancer histories. For example, for women, a history of breast cancer changes when I will recommend beginning screening mammography. When a person has a family history of colon cancer, I may recommend an earlier age for colonoscopy. I also want to learn if there have been problems with blood clots in the family. Mental-health issues also run in families, as well as substance abuse.
Because family health history is such a powerful screening tool, the surgeon general has created a computerized tool to help make it fun and easy for anyone to create a sophisticated portrait of their family’s health history. The web-based tool helps users organize family history information and then print it out for presentation to their family doctor. In addition, the tool helps users save their family-history information to their own computer and even share it with other family members. You can access the My Family Health Portrait Web tool at familyhistory.hhs.gov.
Being prepared with a family health history on your first-time visit with any doctor is helpful. There is always a lot to discuss when I meet with a patient, and the more organized information he or she has ready to offer me at the time of our meeting, the more productive our session will be. I used the tool, and it took me a lot of time to complete, but it will lead me to discuss more information with my own healthcare provider than if I hadn’t prepared one.
Before you begin to create your family health history with the web-based tool, write down the names of the blood relatives that you need to include in your family health history. The most important relatives to talk with are your parents, your brothers and sisters, and your children. Next should be grandparents, uncles and aunts, nieces and nephews, and half-brothers or half-sisters. It is also helpful to talk to great uncles and great aunts, as well as cousins.
Then, prepare your questions. Write them out ahead of time to help you focus your discussion. These may include: do you have any chronic illnesses, 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 illnesses? Have you or your partner had any difficulties with pregnancies, such as miscarriage? What medications are you currently taking?
Also, ask questions about other relatives, both living and deceased, such as: what is our family’s ancestry — what country did they come from? Has anyone in the family had learning or developmental disabilities? What illnesses did your late grandparents have? How old were they when they died? What caused their deaths?
It’s never too late to create a family history. And, if you already have created one, remember to always keep it up to date. 

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