Knowing Your Family History is Good for All

The holidays are here, or at least they’re about to be, and I can think of no better time to have conversations with family about family than when different generations are gathered together.

Certainly there are many seasonal activities that may feel more rewarding: the traditional meal of family favorites and the annual exchanging of gifts spring immediately to mind.

But recalling memories of holidays past and of those who have gone before us can bring us joy as well. Those times of sharing family memories are often the perfect times to discuss a topic that we sometimes try to avoid – that of our family’s health history.

We all know that our family members’ health histories hold clues to what may be in store for us in the future. Undeniably, our physical traits are inherited, so they certainly reveal a lot about our past. It’s often easy to point to Grandpa Jones’ flaming red hair as a contributor to our son’s auburn curls. Eye color, hair color, height, and other physical characteristics are determined by the passing down of genes from our parents, who inherited their characteristics from theirs.

We also, however, inherit characteristics that might not be outwardly obvious – the fact that some of our relatives are healthier and live longer than others might not be easily gleaned from the outside, for example.

Many of us are at risk for certain genetic conditions that our forebears have passed down to us, such as heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers.

While it’s often scary to investigate the health-related maladies faced by our parents, grandparents, and so on, it’s also enlightening to be able to know what types of diseases, conditions, and disorders we should be on the lookout for. For example, if your grandmother suffered a fatal heart attack before she turned forty years old, you may be at a greater risk for having early onset heart disease than many other folks.

Or if your great-uncle suffered from a rare form of liver cancer, might your risk for developing it increase as well? It’s interesting, if not important, to find out.

It’s really not all that difficult to obtain such key information. The best place to start is with your parents if they’re still living. Older relatives are often wellsprings of information, and while some may initially seem reticent to reveal too much, most will want to share information that may prove helpful to those younger than they.

As each generation ages, so does their ability to remember important information, so it’s important to gather that information when you can.  That makes the holiday season a good time to embrace this project.

Some people may be concerned that because they were adopted as children, they’ll never know their family histories. That may be true in some cases, but you may be able to learn some of your family history through the parents who adopted you or from adoption agency records.

One way to keep a good record of your family history is by drawing a family tree called a “pedigree.” On that “tree,” you should list medical and health information about yourself, your siblings, your children, and your parents. You should also include other generations such as your grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews.

For each relative, in addition to date of birth and (when applicable) date of death, list as many of the following medical problems as possible: cancer, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, mental illness, high blood pressure, stroke, kidney disease, alcoholism, etc.

Take a look at the ages when each of these conditions occurred. For example, was Uncle Joe’s heart attack at age 42 or at age 88? Did your mother’s diabetes start in childhood or when she was over 70?

Also, take a look at health habits. If your brother Tomas had a heart attack at age 39 but weighed more than 300 pounds and smoked two packs of cigarettes a day, are you, as a healthy, normal weighted female who doesn’t smoke, at as great a risk?

By collecting your family’s health histories, you’re getting ahead of the game, and you might actually be able to avoid developing some of those issues by employing healthy lifestyle habits that will serve you well. You may be able to reduce your risk of developing serious illnesses through not smoking, regular exercise, and a healthy diet.

After you create your family tree, keep it in a safe place and update it every couple of years. You may also decide to share this document with your family physician or to see a genetic counselor if you have concerns about your family history.

In any event, this discussion of family medical health may prove to be fun as well as incredibly helpful. It may not ever be as popular as Grandma’s pumpkin pie, but it might prove to be healthier in the long run.

In good health,

Greg Dent