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Know Your Family's Medical History

What's in your genes?

Tamar Leak Suber | 10/17/2013, 4:13 a.m.
Is there a history of disease in your family?

In addition to their cinnamon brown skin or their dimpled cheeks, families share other qualities that affect member’s health and longevity, including their genes, environment and lifestyle. You inherit half of your genetic profile from each parent. Along with the genetic information that determines your appearance, you also inherit genes that might cause or increase your risk of certain medical conditions.

A family medical history can reveal the history of disease in your family and allow you to identify patterns that might be relevant to your own health. A complete record includes three generations of first-degree relatives, which includes children, siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, grandparents and cousins.

Know Your History; Change Your Lifestyle

Don Sims, 47 of Atlanta, uses his family health history to motivate him to live a healthier lifestyle. “Several members of my family died of cancer, heart disease, strokes and diabetes. I don’t want to be like that. What’s really frustrating is when I see other people in my family continue to eat fatty, processed food, live sedentary lives and basically not care about their health.” As a result, he is very conscientious about his diet, eating mostly whole foods, fruits and vegetables, and he exercises daily.

Sims is right on track, according to Leah Thompson, an Atlanta nurse. “Knowing and learning from your family’s medical history is important so you can know what lifestyle changes to make in order to keep history from repeating,” she says.

What Should You Include in Your Family Medical History?

When pulling together your family medical history, gather the following information:

  • Sex
  • Date of birth
  • Ethnicity
  • Medical conditions
  • Mental health conditions, including alcoholism or other substance abuse
  • Pregnancy complications, including miscarriage, stillbirth, birth defects or infertility
  • Age when each condition was diagnosed
  • Lifestyle habits, including diet, exercise and tobacco use
  • For deceased relatives, age at the time of death and cause of death

Pay special attention to conditions that develop earlier than usual, such as high blood pressure in early adulthood, or conditions, such as diabetes or colon cancer, that affect multiple relatives. It’s also important to know if genetic conditions, like sickle cell anemia, are in your family. Once you pass pertinent family health history to your health-care provider, she can enhance your health-care experience. She can order more frequent screenings and focus on specific health concerns during your visits.

Doing the Work

Your next family gathering is a great place to start asking questions about your family health history. Information from obituaries, old letters, baby books and public records (birth certificates, marriage licenses, death certificates) is useful as well.

Asking Medical Questions

African-American families, especially some of the older members, are notoriously reluctant to talk about health issues. If they seem unwilling to share this information, consider these strategies:

  • Have a partner. Enlist a sibling or a cousin to help with this family project.
  • Share your purpose. Explain that you’re creating a record to help you determine whether you and your relatives have a family history of certain diseases or health conditions. Offer to make the medical history available to other family members so they can share the information with their doctors.
  • Provide several ways to answer questions. Some people might be more willing to share health information in a face-to-face conversation. Others might prefer answering your questions by phone, mail or email.
  • Word questions carefully. Keep your questions short and to the point. (How long did Grandma live? How did she die? Did she have any diseases?)
  • Be a good listener. As your relatives to talk about their health problems and listen without judgment or comment.
  • Respect privacy. As you collect information about your relatives, respect their right to confidentiality.

Your family’s medical history can’t predict your future health, but having this information in your arsenal is one weapon in the fight to live a long, healthy life. Knowing the ins and outs of your family’s health matters can give you the opportunity to make choices to help prevent diseases that disproportionately affect African Americans.