Why You Need to Know Your Family Health History

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Gary Gilles is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in private practice for over 20 years. He is also an adjunct faculty member at the University ...Read More

Perhaps you’ve noticed that one branch of your family has lived longer than another. For instance, say that men on your father’s side typically live well into their 80s, while men on your mother’s side more often pass away in their 60s? Is this just trivial information or something worth paying attention to? Knowing your family medical history is vital information, especially if you want to prevent certain diseases that may have a genetic link.

A family health history, also known as a medical genealogy, is no longer limited to those simply wanting to trace their family lineage. Healthcare professionals are routinely recommending that patients begin to develop a family health history. Why? Because a documented family health history:

  • Provides health care workers with the background information they need to give you and your family appropriate preventive health care, an accurate diagnosis and medical treatment for many potential conditions.
  • Creates a medical reference for valuable information that may be needed during emergencies when family members are too overwhelmed to give accurate data or when patients are too ill to remember.
  • Helps parents decide whether to have children because of certain genetic risks they may pass on.
  • Allows a person to take a proactive role in their health care by trying to make lifestyle changes.
  • Increases awareness of early warning signs and encourages regular monitoring of known family illnesses.

Gene Links

With the recent mapping of the genetic DNA code, medical family history becomes especially important. Geneticists believe that about 3000 of the 10,000 known diseases have genetic links that could be passed to offspring. In the near future, DNA tests will be able to easily determine whether a person carries a gene for many of the leading diseases that plague our culture including colon cancer, heart disease, alcoholism and high blood pressure, among many others. An accurate medical history will help your health care provider to determine whether you or your children are candidates for testing. As these tests identify the presence of potentially harmful genes, preventative measures can be taken to possibly avoid ever getting a particular disease.

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Getting Started

You can help yourself and your doctor by beginning to compile a comprehensive medical history. Your doctor’s diagnosis of a current condition usually requires a review of your medical history. When you can provide complete and accurate information on your past conditions and treatments, as well as any family history that may be relevant, you only increase the likelihood of an accurate diagnosis and treatment. So before you see a doctor, take time to organize medical records and clarify what is troubling you so you can answer your doctor’s questions completely and accurately.

How to Build a Family Medical History

Getting started on compiling a family medical history is easy – just begin writing down what you know about your health history, then start working backwards, one generation at a time. The items to record in your history should include:

  • Significant dates, such as birth dates and approximate dates when diseases were diagnosed?
  • Major diseases or health conditions such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, obesity, blindness and deafness. At what age were these diseases or conditions diagnosed? Was treatment successful?
  • Other chronic conditions, such as allergies, asthma, migraines or frequent colds?
  • Emotional or lifestyle issues such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, cigarette smoking, overweight, etc.
  • Infertility, miscarriages, stillbirths or infant deaths. If any of these were present, were the reasons for these events discovered?
  • Birth defects, learning disabilities or mental retardation.
  • Note the family’s dominant racial and ethnic background. Some diseases are more common among members of certain races and ethnicities.
  • Any other information that may be relevant to the family medical history.

If you have time, you can also gather family medical information from other sources to help improve the accuracy of your family health history. They include:

  • Death certificates. You can acquire death certificates from your state health department. Death certificates list the cause of death and your relative’s age at death.
  • Medical records. If you are uncertain about aspects of your own health history or someone in your family tree, you have a right to seek access to medical records from hospitals and physicians. Legal rights to obtain the records vary from state to state, but you should at least be able to see the records or make a copy, in most cases.
  • Family records. Ask your relatives if they’ve kept letters, photographs, family diaries, census records, military records, adoption records, immigration documents, passports, obituaries or funeral home records.

Gather information on as many generations of relatives as you can. If you’re married and have children, include your spouse’s family history as well.

Keep Reading By Author Gary Gilles, LCPC
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