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Do you know your family history?

March 22, 2010 at midnight
Updated March 21, 2010 at 10:22 p.m.


My husband's Aunt Suzanne has battles serious health conditions since the summer. She said recently that she wants to compile her family medical history. I said was smart and would like to have a copy after it is complete for my husband and children.

A few weeks after the conversation with Suzanne my mother called to inform my brother, sister and I that she is having hip replacement surgery in April. She mentioned that her father and a sibling have had the same procedure. I began thinking I need to put together a medical history of my own.

I ran across an article written by a colleague of mine, Andrew Crocker. He always speaks at our Regional Healthy Aging Conference and is a wealth of information.

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 Crocker, an AgriLife Extension gerontology health program specialist.

"Americans know that family history is important to health," he 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 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 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.

Because a family health history is such a powerful screening tool, the U.S. Surgeon General 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 FamilyHistory.hhs.gov.

Sarah Womble is a Victoria County extension agent- Family and Consumer Sciences

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