Knowing your family medical history reduces the risks of you or your loved ones developing serious health conditions. In some cases, it could even save your life.
The U.S. Surgeon General reports that 96 percent of Americans believe that their family medical history is important but only one-third have tried to collect it. By following these simple steps, you can start a valuable family tradition.
Gathering Your Family Medical History
1. Seize opportunities at family gatherings. Since 2004, Thanksgiving has been promoted as National Family History Day by the Surgeon General. Any time your family gets together can be a great occasion to start a conversation, so take advantage of reunions, birthdays and other special events.
2. Explain your purpose. Let people know why you’re asking personal questions. Family medical data provides vital clues about health conditions for which you may be at higher risk.
3. Trace back three generations. Start with your immediate family and then extend your research to include more distant relatives like cousins. Going back three generations makes it easier to spot patterns, like multiple cases of a specific cancer or an early-developing arthritis.
4. Prepare your questions in advance – know what to ask for. Visit websites like My Family Health Portrait to learn the questions you need to ask. Important information includes chronic illnesses, causes of death and ethnic backgrounds.
5. Draw a family tree. Many people find it helpful to draw a family tree to organize the data. Pictures also help kids to get involved in the project.
6. Confirm personal stories. Use official documents like birth and death records to verify information. Memories may get fuzzy over time or people may have misunderstood some details.
7. Accept gaps in knowledge. Identify areas of uncertainty rather than risk making false assumptions. For example, consumption could refer to tuberculosis or to several other respiratory diseases.
8. Approach sensitive issues with tact. People may find it distressing to discuss unpleasant experiences. Reassure them that the information will be handled responsibly and speak with them privately if it helps.
Using Your Family Medical History
1. Document your findings. Keep a record of your work. Write everything down or make an audio or video recording.
2. Share your discoveries with the whole family. The best way to thank your family for participating is to share the information with them. Send them a special email or create a family newsletter.
* If family members are uncomfortable with broadcasting their medical histories in detail, you can disclose general findings without discussing what happened to whom.
3. Consult your doctor. Presenting your doctor with a complete family history enables you to get better treatment, including early screenings when needed. Your doctor can also explain how various factors are likely to impact your individual health.
4. Consider seeing a genetic specialist. In some cases, your doctor may refer you to a genetic specialist. As science uncovers the hereditary basis for many conditions, specialized treatments may give you options your ancestors lacked.
5. Protect your privacy. The confidentiality of your family medical history is covered by The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. Your state may also have laws that provide additional protection.
6. Keep your records updated. Make your family medical history an ongoing project. Update it every year for new births, deaths and other events.
7. Adjust your lifestyle. The most gratifying thing about this whole exercise is that you can often dramatically improve your chances of avoiding or managing even the most serious conditions. Improving your diet and exercising, along with following your doctor’s recommendations, could help you live a longer and more productive life.
Our well-being is a combination of genetics, environment and lifestyle. Learning about your past gives you more control over your future. Once you know your family medical history, you and your children can make better decisions about your health.