Gather family health history this holiday

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While you’re busy choosing presents for your families, why not give yourself a precious gift? These holiday get-togethers are perfect for you to gather the necessary information to create your family health history (also known as a medical family tree).

The idea is to create a written record of illnesses and medical conditions that have affected your blood relatives with the goal of understanding your risk, and your children’s risk for certain conditions and improving the health of your entire family.

“A family health history remains one of the most powerful tools in modern medicine, even though it is our oldest, least expensive, most low-tech product. It’s essentially a piece of paper with your family tree that outlines your relatives along with their medical conditions, ages of onset of those conditions, and age and cause of death for those who have passed away,” Leslie Manace Brenman, MD, MPhil, a clinical geneticist at Kaiser Permanente Oakland Medical Center said in an article I found online.

Now, we’re not suggesting you ask personal questions while passing the mashed potatoes at Christmas dinner. “Hey Grandpa, tell me about your prostate,” probably isn’t good table talk. But surely there’ll be time to take family members aside to ask about important health issues.

If you prefer to be higher tech, Brenman references the surgeon general’s online tool called “My Family Health Portrait” to capture all the information electronically. I took a quick look at it and think it’s a viable tool. The key to any of this information is to keep it up-to-date.

What should a family health history include? Brenman explains:

“The standard is a three-generation family tree including yourself, your parents and their parents, with all of the siblings and children for each of these generations. Try to get as many medical details as possible about each person, including the specific names of diseases or disorders, treatments and interventions, origin location of cancer, and the age the person was first diagnosed with a condition. Include information about intellectual disability, birth defects, and lifestyle habit such as smoking, alcohol, or drug use.”

Include name (or initials), current age, ethnicity and conditions such as arthritis, birth defects, chronic respiratory disease (asthma), depression, diabetes, cancer (list specific type such as breast, colon, ovarian, prostate, etc.), hearing loss, heart disease, high cholesterol, hypertension (high blood pressure), infertility, mental retardation, multiple miscarriages, obesity, osteoporosis, physical abnormalities, stroke and vision loss.

American Medical Association website is another good resource for developing a family health history. Their booklet Family Medical History in Disease Prevention can be downloaded in pdf form and gives you a step-by-step explanation on gathering a family health history although I found the language a little slanted towards healthcare professionals.

“Early identification of families with increased risk for chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers can often improve, delay, or even prevent adverse health outcomes to individual members,” the AMA said.

They say to be as accurate as possible, but know that there may be some discrepancies. “Information on immediate family members such as parents and siblings tends to be more accurate than that pertaining to uncles, aunts, and cousins.”

They also suggest that you ask for this personal information in an open-ended and non-judgmental manner. “Families that have medical conditions appearing in multiple relatives need to be reassured that no one is to blame when genetic conditions are passed on to future generations,” AMA says.

Once you gather this information, what do you do with it? “Share your family health history with your primary care physician,” Brenman said. “He or she should be able to help you with questions you might have about patterns in your history, and speak with you about possible preventive measures or screenings to optimize your health.

“You can also share this information with your children and other relatives, so they too can live longer healthier lives.” What a priceless gift to give those you love!

Kathy Hubbard is a member of Bonner General Health Foundation Advisory Council. She can be reached at 208-264-4029 or

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