The winter holidays evoke images of celebration, unwrapping presents, setting resolutions and most of all spending time with family. As you share memories with loved ones this year, remember to also share your family health history. Nancy Beck, M.D., a physician at Texas Tech Physicians — Pediatrics and an assistant professor for the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center School of Medicine, said information about your family’s health can be enormously helpful to health care providers.
“When you visit a health care professional, you may wonder why they may ask so many questions,” Beck said. “In particular, why is it important to know about the health of your relatives when you are there to talk about your own medical concerns? Even if you are well, knowledge of diseases that run in your family may be the factor that keeps you healthy in the future. For instance, if your father had colon cancer, your provider may choose to perform colonoscopies more frequently. Doing so may mean the difference between curing cancer diagnosed early and going on with your life, as opposed to a less favorable outcome.”
For better or worse, you share the same genes with your family members. There are some conditions in which inheriting a gene can result in almost certain disease. Other genes can cause you to be predisposed to having a disease, but it requires another factor to bring about actual illness. Some types of heart disease fit into the latter situation. You may inherit a tendency to develop heart disease from your parents. Nevertheless, Beck said if you avoid that second factor of eating French fries in front of the television every day, and instead exercise and eat well, it may be possible for you to evade a heart attack.
Another reason it’s useful for your doctor to know about relatives’ illnesses is you share the same environment with your family members.
“You often eat the same types of food, are exposed to the same potential dangers in your home and have the same stressors,” Beck said. “Say, for example, you have been extremely tired lately and you go to see your doctor. There are numerous causes for fatigue. You could go through several tests, continuing to feel bad while you wait for results, and the tests may not reveal the cause. However, if you had mentioned that two of your children were recently found to have high lead levels on routine screening, this small piece of family history could have saved you some suffering. You could have had your lead levels checked and the answer to your tiredness might be to stop sanding the lead paint off that old home you’re restoring.”
Beck suggests several websites to document your own health history, as well as the health of your family. One free website is Microsoft Healthvault. After entering your basic health history, you have the option to share this information with other members of your family or anyone else you choose. You can revoke their right to see the information at any time. There are several applications that can interact with your Healthvault account and make it possible for you to upload and store your medical records.
Another free Internet-based tool is “My Family Health Portrait Tool,” which is part of the Surgeon General’s Family History Initiative. This website uses information you enter about your family to create a family medical tree which can be stored and/or printed. Information from this site can also be uploaded to your Healthvault account. How do you obtain information about your family history?
“For members who are living, ask them,” Beck said. “In 2004, the surgeon general declared every Thanksgiving to be National Family History Day. Although any time your family is gathered together, is a good time to discuss health histories. Many times, older family members may know information about deceased relatives. Genealogy websites can be a source of death certificates or obituaries detailing information about your ancestors’ health.”
Finally, Beck said think of learning your family health history as a positive experience. It provides you with a chance to learn more about your family members, to share life stories of your relatives and to plan for a healthier future.