Know more than the family tree; know the health history
Granny Raye has high blood pressure, Granddaddy had a heart attack at age 63, and Aunt Kathleen has diabetes.
It's important to know more than just the family tree, said a Texas AgriLife Extension Service specialist.
Knowing the family health history, including information about diseases, causes of death and other health information, can be necessary for proper treatment by health providers, said Andrew Crocker, AgriLife Extension gerontology health program specialist.
"Americans know that family history is important to health," Crocker said. "A recent survey found that 96 percent of Americans believe that knowing their family history is important; however, only one-third have tried to gather their family's health history."
Health professionals know that some common diseases such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes, and more rare diseases like hemophilia, cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia, run in families, he said.
"If one generation has high blood pressure, it is not unusual for the next generation to have high blood pressure," Crocker said. "Though a family health history cannot predict your future health, it may provide information about risk."
Other factors, such as diet, weight, exercise and the environment, may raise or lower the risk of developing certain diseases, he said.
Health providers may use family health history to assess risk of certain diseases, recommend changes in diet or other lifestyle habits to lower the risk. They also may use it to determine diagnostic tests to order and recommend treatments, and determine the type and frequency of screening tests.
A family health history should include at least three generations, Crocker said. Compile information about grandparents, parents, uncles and aunts, siblings, cousins, children, nieces and nephews, and grandchildren.
"Gather as much accurate information as possible, and do not expect to find answers to all your questions," he said.
For each person, try to gather sex, date of birth, diseases or other medical conditions and age of onset, diet and exercise habits. Also look into smoking habits or history of weight problems and, if it is the case, age at the time of death and cause of death, Crocker said.
Include information about race and ethnicity because the risk of a particular disorder may be greater in one group than in others, he said.
Crocker advised asking about the occurrence of diseases and medical conditions often associated with genetics, including but not limited to: cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and/or stroke, diabetes, mental illness, kidney disease, alcoholism or other substance abuse and birth defects.
"Give your health provider a copy of your family health history and ask him or her to review it with you," he said. "Your health provider may ask you questions for clarification and may help you interpret the relevance of certain patterns. Update your family health history every couple of years and provide your health provider with a revised copy."
Crocker warned that not all family members may be comfortable disclosing personal medical information for various reasons, including feelings of shame, painful memories and lack of understanding of medical conditions or value of a family health history.
"Look for ways to address this sometimes sensitive topic with family members such as wording questions carefully, being a good listener and respecting privacy," he said.
Because a family health history is such a powerful screening tool, the Surgeon General has created a computerized tool to help make it fun and easy to create.
My Family Health Portrait provides a template in both English and Spanish for inputting information and generating a family health history. It helps users organize information and then print it for their health provider. This free tool may be accessed at http://familyhistory.hhs.gov .