Use your holidays to gather family health history

November 22, 2016 Providence Health Team

The most powerful gift you could give to your family this holiday season may not be wrapped up in a bow, but it could save a life. Gatherings during the holidays offer a unique opportunity to compile family medical histories, which could make a difference for children and grandchildren in the future.

Some connections seem obvious. For instance, most women know to tell their health care provider if their mothers, sisters or grandmothers have had breast cancer. But did you know a woman whose father or brother has been diagnosed with prostate cancer may be at increased risk for developing breast cancer, as well?

Common health problems that can run in families include:

  • Alzheimer’s disease and dementia
  • Arthritis
  • Asthma
  • Blood clots
  • Cancer
  • Depression
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Pregnancy losses and birth defects
  • Stroke

How many generations make a complete record?

A family history is a record of health information among close relatives. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a complete record includes information from three generations of relatives: children, siblings, parents, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, grandparents and cousins.

Begin by making a list of relatives with whom to speak, then ask each of your blood relatives the same series of questions. The NIH suggests:

  • What is your age or date of birth?
  • Do you have any chronic conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, asthma or high blood pressure?
  • Have you had any other serious illnesses, such as cancer or stroke? If you know of a specific disease or illnesses in your family, ask about them, too.
  • How old were you when you developed these illnesses?
  • Have you or your partner had any problems with pregnancies or childbirth?
  • What countries did our family come from? Knowing this can help because some heritable diseases occur more often in certain population groups. Also, different diets and living environments can influence the risks of developing certain diseases.
  • Has anyone in the family had birth defects, learning problems, or developmental disabilities, such as Down's syndrome?
  • What illnesses did your late parents or grandparents have? How old were they when they died? What caused their deaths?

Genetic testing goes deeper

Genetic testing is a way for you and your relatives to learn if you’re at increased risk for cancer or other inherited conditions based on medical and family health history. Having this knowledge can help determine your chance of developing or passing on a genetic disorder.

A genetic test is completely voluntary. If you or your family choose to take the test, you’ll work with a counselor who will help you interpret the results and understand your risk for hereditary conditions, including cancer.

Roadmap to health

Your family medical record is a roadmap of your health. It will help your provider understand your health risk factors, and possibly reduce the risk of disease by making lifestyle changes.

Consider taking the time this holiday season to develop a family health history with the help of your loved ones – it could be a life-saving gift for all of you.

Providence offers genetic counseling services. If you are considering taking a genetic test or have questions or concerns about your health, talk to your health care provider. You can find a Providence provider in our regional directory.

Resource recommendation

The NIH SeniorHealth web site offers guidance on how to create a family medical history, including a form to print out, or to fill out electronically.

You’ll find extensive information about genetic testing on the U.S. National Library of Medicine website.

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