There is no better time than now to start compiling a family health history.
Such a record can help identify disorders and conditions that run in your family and might spur you and your siblings, cousins, children and other relatives to take preventive measures.
The information you gather can help determine:
• what diagnostic tests would be useful for each family member and how often to get them;
• which family members might be at high risk for developing certain conditions; and
• your risk of passing conditions along to your offspring.
Who to include in your family health tree:
Your family health record should go back three or four generations and include parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews.
What to include in your family health tree:
For each family member, gather the following information:
• Date of birth
• Age (if deceased, list the age at death and cause)
• Ethnic background (some conditions are more prevalent in certain racial groups; for example, south Asians are at higher risk for type 2 diabetes and coronary artery disease than others)
• Major physical illnesses; focus on those that occurred earlier than is typical and/or in several relatives (some conditions, such as heart disease, could be hereditary if they consistently struck at a young age; that is, if close family members – parents, siblings or grandparents – developed heart disease before age 55 or, in the case of female relatives, before menopause). Also focus on diseases that occurred in specific combinations (for example, breast and ovarian cancer)
• Mental disorders (for example, depression, anxiety and chemical dependency)
• Chronic conditions, such as allergies, asthma and migraines (include symptoms that were never diagnosed)
• Lifestyle (exercise habits, diet, alcohol consumption, smoking, and weight issues)
• Vision or hearing loss
• Infertility issues
• Birth defects
• Learning disabilities (for instance, attention deficit disorder)
Some health issues might be private or sensitive; for example, Aunt Sally may not want to talk about her bouts of depression in front of her siblings. Explain your purpose, offer several alternative ways to answer your questions (a later face-to-face meeting, e-mail, etc.) and word your questions carefully and sensitively.
Other useful resources include medical records, death certificates, obituaries, insurance forms and cemetery documents.
When the tree is done:
• Give a copy to your doctor and have her review it with you. She may ask further questions to help interpret the information.
• Your doctor should be better able to suggest appropriate screening tests for you.
• Send a copy of the health record to other family members; they should also share it with their own medical professionals.
• Update the document regularly, maybe at each holiday gathering.
Keep in mind this list of conditions and diseases associated with genetic risk:
• Alcoholism and other substance abuse
• Birth defects
• Hearing loss
• Heart disease
• High blood pressure
• High cholesterol
• Kidney disease
• Learning disabilities
• Mental illness
• Mental retardation
• Miscarriages and stillbirths
• Vision loss
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