Holidays are a great time to learn your family's health history. While you're decorating, baking, and cooking with your family members take time to talk about health conditions that may run in your family. By learning about conditions that affect your parents, grandparents, and other blood relatives, you can gain a better understanding about how to take care of your health and the health of your family.
Here are a few good reasons why you should learn more about your family's health history.
- Diseases are often passed down from generation to generation. Common diseases, such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, and rare diseases like hemophilia, cystic fibrosis, and sickle cell anemia, often run in families. If a family member from one generation has high blood pressure, it is likely that the next generation could also have high blood pressure. Experts recommend that your family medical history include at least three generations, with information about your grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, siblings, cousins, children, nieces, nephews, and grandchildren.
- Write it down. According to a recent survey, as reported by the U.S. Surgeon General, 96 percent of Americans believe that knowing their family's health history is important. However, only one-third of Americans have ever made the effort to track it down and put it in writing. Important pieces of information include:
- Sex and date of birth
- Medical conditions, mental health conditions and pregnancy complications
- Age when a certain condition was diagnosed
- Lifestyle habits such as diet, exercise and tobacco use
- For deceased relatives, age at the time of death and cause of death
- Share historical information with your doctor. Your family's health history can help your doctor assess your risk of certain diseases and recommend treatments or changes in diet or other lifestyle habits to lower the risk of you developing the disease. Your doctor might also use your family medical history to identify other family members who are at risk of developing a certain disease and determine your risk of passing conditions on to your children.
- Use this history to reduce your risk of disease. Knowing about conditions for which you may be at risk, allows you to take preventive measures such as weight management to help prevent diabetes or diet modifications to help prevent high blood pressure or high cholesterol.
- Access online resources to help organize your "medical family tree." The Surgeon General offers a web-based tool that can help you organize family history information and then print it out to give to your healthcare provider. Go to Access the My Family Health Portrait Web tool at https://familyhistory.hhs.gov/. A number of other online resources are available including the Maternal and Child Health Library: Family Health History Resource Brief at www.mchlibrary.info/guides/familyhistory.html and National Society for Genetic Counselors — Family History at http://www.nsgc.org/About/FamilyHistoryTool/tabid/226/Default.aspx.
- Take advantage of preventive services. If you learn about a disease that you may be at risk of developing, check whether screening tests may be appropriate. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) covers a number of preventive services including diet counseling, cholesterol screening, obesity screening and many others. Depending on your insurance plan, certain screenings may be available to you at no cost. For more information, visit http://www.healthcare.gov/law/about/provisions/services/lists.html.
In the long run, knowing your family's health history can help you take steps to prevent or manage chronic conditions, contributing to lower overall healthcare costs and ultimately leading to a healthier life.