Haven't you ever wondered if you're likely to have a heart attack? Get diabetes? Cancer? An aortic aneurysm?
It turns out your family tree holds a wealth of information. So much, in fact, that Francis Collins, the Director of the National Institutes of Health, calls your family medical history "a genetic test that's free."
The trouble is, most physicians don't take the time to review your family history with you in any detail. Frequently, patients are unsure of many of the specifics. It's often hard to remember what exactly your father's mother died of, or when. You say your grandfather died of lung cancer. Was he a smoker? How old was she when he died? Was it Type 1 or Type II diabetes? Was your mom's breast lump biopsied in 1958 or just removed? Are you sure it was breast cancer? If you can't recall key information most physicians move on.
Why bother documenting your own family medical history? The information you gather can help guide you and your health provider in deciding what prevention strategies and screening tests are most important for you and your family.
There's an easy-to-use, free tool on the Surgeon General's website. It allows you to put in the names of your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, sisters and brothers, along with their cause of death, age at death, and other related factors. Once completed, you can take it to your healthcare provider and say, "Given this family history, are there things that I should be doing or tests I should have?"
It only takes about 15 to 20 minutes to create a basic family health history. The information you provide is not stored on the site. You're only making use of the software. After you complete the information, the health history is available only to you to download. A detailed question & answer section is available on the website.
As you fill in the blanks, you may realize that there are gaps in your knowledge. Now is a good time to ask your living relatives what they know about the health issues and cause of death of your family members. For example, my father's father died of a heart attack -- I think -- at about 60 -- and had adult-onset (type 2) diabetes -- I think. I wish I knew for sure, and no one who would know is alive today. But even some information is better than nothing. If you find gaps, don't worry. Most people will have some unanswered questions.
It may be helpful to know a few key features of a family history that can increase risk:
Diseases that occur at an early age than expected (10 to 20 years before most people get the condition). Think heart disease, stroke or prostate cancer, for example.
Diseases in more than one close relative
Diseases that don't usually affect a certain gender such as breast cancer in a man
Certain combinations of diseases with a family, such as heart disease and diabetes, or breast and ovarian cancer
The written family medical history is also a good thing to pass on to your children. You can even store a copy with your will and trust or fold it into an envelope in your Safe Deposit box at the bank to help ensure the information will be passed on.
Not only can the family health history open up a good discussion with your physician, be sure to talk about it with your family, stimulating ideas about ways everyone can take a more active role in prevention where it may be especially effective.
Your genes won't change, but your behaviors -- such as exercise, smoking, diet -- and screening priorities can.
Barbara Bronson Gray, RN, MN, is the founder of the blog www.bodboss.com, which is “dedicated to helping people learn to be the CEO of their own body and better guide their own health care.” Besides her hands-on work as both a nurse and supervisor in hospitals, Barbara has written articles that have been published in a number of national magazines and newspapers. Follow her on Twitter: @bbgrayrn.