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Do you know your family’s health history?

It’s important. Here’s where to start.

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Family gatherings are a time to catch up, share stories and laughs, and even reminisce about loved ones who are no longer with us. They’re also perfect opportunities to draw a clearer picture of your family’s healthy history – connecting the dots among loved ones to uncover past or present conditions and/or diseases that are shared by others.

“You can gather health history while everyone is there,” said Valerie Fuller, a family nurse practitioner and adult gerontology acute care nurse practitioner at Maine Medical Center. “Anytime your family is together, you can collect information.”

Why it matters

Family members share certain traits, Fuller explained, so certain health conditions and diseases can be hereditary. Diabetes, arthritis, heart disease, osteoporosis, high cholesterol and some cancers are just a few.

“Putting together a family history can help you identify specific risks that you or your family members might have,” she continued. “It might help you identify some certain genetic transmission of diseases that you can then talk to your health care provider about.”

For those providers, having this knowledge allows them to be more observant of certain conditions.

“Early identification can help us provide more specific and sometimes earlier treatment to improve health care outcomes,” Fuller said. “If I was seeing a patient whose father had a heart attack at 40, it’s a very different thing than if I’m seeing a patient whose father died of a heart attack when he was 95.”

What to document

Focusing on immediate family members – parents, siblings and offspring – is the best place to start, experts say. Then, move on to aunts, uncles and cousins.

Fuller suggests gathering details such as age and physical and mental health conditions. Then, ask them about habits such as drinking, smoking, high-fat diet, lack of exercise. Do this for immediate family members who have died, too. This can help create your family tree of health history.

Not sure where to begin? The National Institutes of Health offers these example questions:

  • Did you experience any health issues as a child?
  • In your job, what habits do you have that could affect your health? (Sun exposure, physical activity, etc.)
  • Have you had health issues as an adult? Did any require medical treatment or surgery?
  • Did your grandparents take medications or have any health issues?
  • Has anyone in the family been screened or had genetic testing for diseases such as cancer? What were the results?

Among the other conditions Fuller strongly believes should be included in a family health history are any mental health issues.

“We do know that certain mental disorders do tend to run in families, like major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia,” Fuller said. “We’ve stigmatized those illnesses to such a degree that people either don’t seek help or some families see it as a character flaw. It’s not a character flaw. Mental health is part of physical health.”

Some family members may not know the health history of their older relatives. Others may be uncomfortable openly sharing certain personal details. If family gatherings aren’t an option, consider having individual conversations with your relatives or sending them a questionnaire to fill in and return to you. “Just have an open, honest discussion about why you want the information and how it might help you and other members of the family,” Fuller said.

Resources to help you

Not sure where to start? Plenty of free resources are available online to help you document your family’s health history.

One is the National Institutes of Health’s “A Guide to Family Health History,” available at ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK115505.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers a similar tool called “My Family Health Portrait,” at cdc.gov/genomics/famhistory/index.htm. The website allows you to create, save, update and print your family health history.

The American Medical Association website features downloadable PDF questionnaires to help track your family’s health history, which then can be provided to physicians when receiving care or undergoing an annual physical. Find them at ama-assn.org/delivering-care/precision-medicine/collecting-family-history.

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