By Kathy Hubbard
It became an annual Thanksgiving tradition for Martha to announce at dinner that this would be her last. Not a particularly cheerful human being, Martha was certain that her death was imminent and because of which she might as well have another piece of pie.
“So, Grandma, what’ve you got that’s going to kill you?” her granddaughter asked one year. As the rest of the family stopped breathing, Martha sighed and listed a couple of non-life threatening conditions ending with the fact that she’d been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.
“Well, you certainly shouldn’t be eating more pie,” the young girl said authoritatively. The rest of the family laughed. The child then asked, “What else do you have that I might inherit from you?”
Smart kid. She was beginning to have the talk that I’ll recommend everyone have this holiday season, and that’s to gather the information to put together a Family Health History. We all know that we inherit our hair and eye color from our parents and grandparents, do we know what else?
“You inherit half of your genetic profile from each parent. Along with the genetic information that determines your appearance, you also inherit genes that might cause or increase your risk of certain medical conditions,” Mayo Clinic explains. “On the other hand, you might have a family history that indicates you are at a lower risk for certain conditions.”
The Department of Health and Human Services says, “Health care professionals have known for a long time that common diseases – heart disease, cancer, and diabetes – and rare 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.”
They also said that “a recent survey found that 96 percent of Americans believe that knowing their family history is important. Yet, the same survey found that only one-third of Americans have ever tried to gather and write down their family’s health history.”
Once you’ve gathered the information which includes your parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews and grandchildren you can share it with your immediate family – particularly the younger generation – and also your primary care provider.
“Your doctor might use your family medical history to assess your risk of certain diseases; recommend changes in diet or other lifestyle habits to reduce the risk of disease; recommend medications or treatments to reduce the risk of disease; determine which diagnostic tests to order, and assess your risk of passing conditions on to your children,” Mayo Clinic says.
Your PCP might use this information to determine if you should get specific genetic tests or it might help to identify a condition that might otherwise not be on the radar screen. It can help him or her decide what screening tests should be performed.
What information should you ask for? Sex, date of birth, ethnicity, medical conditions, mental health conditions (including alcoholism or other substance abuse), pregnancy complications (including miscarriage, stillbirth, birth defects, or infertility), age when each condition was diagnosed, lifestyle habits (diet, exercise, tobacco use) and for those deceased what age they died and from what.
“Pay special attention to conditions that develop earlier than usual, such as high blood pressure in early adulthood, or conditions that affect multiple relatives,” Mayo Clinic advises. And don’t forget diseases of the eye such as macular degeneration and glaucoma.
There are templates you can download so all you need to bring to dinner is a pencil or pen. There’s also a web-based tool designed by HHS. You can find it at https://familyhistory.hhs.gov where you can complete the form on your tablet or smart phone.
This is obviously not a crystal ball foretelling your future health. You’re just gathering information about risk. There are other factors that will weigh into whether or not you’re susceptible to inherit health conditions.
In case you’re wondering, Martha was over 90 when she kept her promise to miss Thanksgiving dinner. Have a great holiday!
Kathy Hubbard is a member of Bonner General Health Foundation Advisory Council. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.