Monday Medical: Holidays a good time to gather family health history
December 22, 2013
Steamboat Springs — Holidays often are a chance to catch up with family members and relatives we don't see often. Conversations around the dinner table or fireplace can be good occasions to learn about our family's health history and our disease risk.
Perhaps a parent is taking medication for high blood pressure or several close relatives were diagnosed with the same cancer. This type of information can help your doctor better assess your disease risk and recommend lifestyle changes, earlier or more frequent screenings or other measures to reduce your chance of developing a serious condition.
"It is important to know your family health history and share that with your physician, especially if you have a concern," said Dr. Michelle Jimerson, a family physician.
"This information can help steer your doctor's screening recommendations and treatment options," Jimerson said.
Common health problems that can run in families include heart disease, cancer, diabetes, depression, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, stroke, pregnancy problems, blood clots, asthma and Alzheimer's disease/dementia, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Many diseases are thought to result from a combination of genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors.
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Some conditions result from genetic mutations passed through families. A person who has been diagnosed with or has a family history of certain diseases may be referred to a genetic counselor to confirm a genetic mutation and help guide screenings and/or treatment and risk assessment for family members.
Diet, weight, fitness, tobacco and alcohol use, occupation and where a person lives also can influence disease risk. Smoking and excessive alcohol use, for example, may be more significant than genes in causing common diseases such as heart disease and cancer.
A family member who developed a disease at an earlier age than is usual or has a disease that does not typically affect a certain gender (such as breast cancer in a man) can increase other family members' chances of getting those diseases. Certain combinations of diseases in a family, such as breast and ovarian cancer, also can influence risk.
A recorded family health history easily can be shared with your doctor and family members. The U.S. Surgeon General's "My Family Health Portrait" is a helpful tool for organizing family health details: http://www.familyhistory.hhs.gov.
The most important family health information comes from first-degree relatives — parents, siblings and children. Health history from second-degree relatives — aunts and uncles, grandparents, half-siblings and nieces and nephews — also is helpful.
Key details to know about family members include:
• If they have had a chronic condition such as heart disease, diabetes or a serious illness such as cancer.
• Their age when they developed the condition.
• If they have had problems with pregnancy or childbirth.
• Types of medications they are taking or have taken in the past.
• If they have had birth defects, learning problems or developmental disabilities.
• Age and cause of death if they are deceased.
• Ancestors' countries of origin.
Health information is personal, so find the right time to talk. Family gatherings can be comfortable opportunities, or you can arrange to speak to someone privately. This may be more appropriate for discussions about sensitive topics such as cancer or depression.
Mental health problems often run in families so it's important to have that information, even though it can be a tough subject to broach, Jimerson said.
"I know sometimes it can be hard to talk about, but I do think it's important," she said.
Explain why you are gathering the information and offer to share your family's health history when it's completed.
This article includes information from the National Institutes of Health Senior Health, http://www.nihseniorhealth.gov.
Tamera Manzanares writes for Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.