Dear Savvy Senior: How can I create a family health history? My doctor recently suggested that I make one as a way to predict potential health problems as I get older, but I could use some help. — Getting Old
Dear Getting: Even with all the high-tech medical tests and procedures that are available today, an accurate family health history remains one of the most important tools in keeping yourself healthy as you age.
Here’s what you should know, along with tips and tools to help you start.
Just as you can inherit your father’s height or your mother’s eye color, you can also inherit their genetic risk for diseases such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease and more. If one generation of a family has high blood pressure, for example, it is not unusual for the next generation to have it, too. Therefore, tracing the illnesses suffered by your relatives can help you and your doctor predict the disorders you may be at risk for, so you can act to keep yourself healthy.
To create a family health history, start by collecting some basic medical information on your first-degree relatives including your parents, siblings and children. Then move on to your grandparents, aunts, uncles and first cousins.
You’ll need the specific ages of when they developed health problems such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, arthritis, dementia, depression, etc. If family members are deceased, you need to know when and how they died. If possible, include lifestyle information too, such as diet, exercise, smoking and alcohol use.
Some relatives may not want to share their medical histories or they may not know their family histories, but any information you discover will be helpful.
To get information on deceased relatives, get a copy of their death certificates. This will list the cause and the age of death. To get a death certificate, contact the vital records office in the state where your relative died, or visit vitalchek.com.
For help putting together your family health history, the U.S. Surgeon General offers a free Web-based tool called “My Family Health Portrait” (see familyhistory.hhs.gov) that can help you collect, organize and understand your genetic risks and even share the information with your family members and doctors.
Another great resource that provides similar assistance is the Genetic Alliance’s online tool called “Does It Run In the Family.” At familyhealthhistory.org you can create a customized guide on your family health history for free. Or, if you lack Internet access, call 202-966-5557 and ask them to send you a free hard copy of these booklets in the mail.
If you’re adopted, the National Foster Care &Adoption Directory Search may be able to help you find your birth parents to get their medical history. Visit childwelfare.gov/nfcad or call 800-394-3366.
MANAGING YOUR RESULTS
If you discover serious health problems in your family, don’t despair. You can’t change your genes, but you can change your habits to increase your chances of a healthy future. By eating a healthy diet, exercising and not smoking, you can offset and sometimes even neutralize your genetic vulnerabilities. This is especially true for heart disease, stroke, type-2 diabetes and osteoporosis.
A family medical history can also alert you to get early and frequent screening tests, which can help detect other problems (high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and cancers such as breast, ovarian, prostrate and colon cancer) in their early stages when they’re most treatable.
Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior” book.