Dear Savvy Senior,
What can you tell me about creating a family health history? My doctor recently suggested that I make one as a way to predict potential health problems as I get older, but I could use some help.
It’s a smart idea! Even with all the high-tech medical tests and procedures that are available today, an accurate family health history remains one of the most important tools in keeping yourself healthy as you age. Here’s what you should know, along with some tips and tools to help get you started.
Just as you can inherit your father’s height or your mother’s eye color, you can also inherit their genetic risk for diseases like cancer, diabetes, heart disease and more. If one generation of a family has high blood pressure, for example, it is not unusual for the next generation to have it too. Therefore, tracing the illnesses suffered by your relatives can help you and your doctor predict the disorders you may be at risk for, so you can take action to keep yourself healthy.
To create a family health history, you’ll need to start by collecting some basic medical information on your first-degree relatives including your parents, siblings and children. Then move on to your grandparents, aunts, uncles and first cousins.
You need to get the specific ages of when they developed health problems like heart disease, cancer, diabetes, arthritis, dementia, depression, etc. If family members are deceased, you need to know when and how they died. If possible, include lifestyle information as well, such as diet, exercise, smoking and alcohol use.
Some relatives may not want to share their medical histories or they may not know their family history, but whatever information you discover will be helpful.
To get information on diseased relatives, get a copy of their death certificate. This will list their cause of death and the age he or she died. To get a death certificate, contact the vital records office in the state where your relative died, or go to vitalchek.com.
To get help putting together your family health history, the U.S. Surgeon General offers a free web-based tool called “My Family Health Portrait” (see familyhistory.hhs.gov) that can help you collect, organize and understand your genetic risks and even share the information with your family members and doctors.
Another great resource that provides similar assistance is the Genetic Alliance’s online tool called “Does It Run In the Family.” At familyhealthhistory.org you can create a customized guide on your family health history for free. Or, if you don’t have Internet access, call 202-966-5557 and ask them to send you a free hardcopy of these booklets in the mail.
And, if you’re adopted, the National Foster Care & Adoption Directory Search may be able to help you locate your birth parents to get their medical history. See childwelfare.gov/nfcad or call 800-394-3366.
Managing Your Results
If you discover some serious health problems that run in your family, don’t despair. While you can’t change your genes, you can change your habits to increase your chances of a healthy future. By eating a healthy diet, exercising and not smoking, you can offset and sometimes even neutralize your genetic vulnerabilities. This is especially true for heart disease, stroke, type-2 diabetes and osteoporosis.
A family medical history can also alert you to get early and frequent screening tests, which can help detect other problems (high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and cancers like breast, ovarian, prostrate and colon cancer) in their early stages when they’re most treatable.
Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior” book.