Family Health History
Can a heart attack actually be inherited? I just turned 55 and am trying to make some healthy changes. I would like to know if tracing my family's health history is worth the effort.
Just as you can inherit your father's height or your mother's hair color, you can also inherit their genetic risk for diseases such as heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes. Here is what you should know.
Even with all the high-tech tests, medicines and procedures that are available today, an accurate family health history remains one of the most important tools in keeping yourself healthy. Since most diseases have both environmental and genetic components, your family's health history can provide you and your doctor a genetic roadmap to your strengths and weaknesses. This information may help you recognize, and even fend off, inheritable illnesses in their early stages.
Tracking your History
To collect your family's medical history, you will need some basic medical facts about your parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles and even first cousins. Talk with them and get the specific ages when family members developed health problems like heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, osteoporosis, asthma, blindness, deafness, depression, alcoholism and more. Also, if family members are deceased, find out when and how they passed away. Some relatives may not want to share their medical histories or they may not know their family history, but whatever information you discover will be helpful. A good resource to help you find an ancestor's unknown medical history is their death certificate, which you can acquire from the state health department. Your relative's death certificate will list the cause of death and your relative's age at death.
The upcoming holidays, when many families come together, are a perfect time to collect your family's health history. A great resource to help you get started is the free web-based tool called "My Family Health Portrait," which is available at familyhistory.hhs.gov. Using this tool, you can organize your family tree, identify genetic risks and even share the information with your family members and doctors. If you do not like using the online software, you can print out a hardcopy version to fill out by hand.
Tip: If you're adopted, the National Foster Care & Adoption Directory (www.childwelfare.gov/nfcad or 800-394-3366) may help you locate your birth parents to get their medical history.
Having a parent or sibling with a particular genetic disease does not mean you will get the disease too, but this risk factor nearly doubles the odds that you could develop the same disease. If two or more cases occur in the same immediate family, the odds can increase by fourfold or more. Some additional factors that can increase your risks are:
- If a family member was diagnosed with a disease 10 to 20 years before the average age of diagnosis (e.g., a family member was diagnosed with heart disease at age 35).
- A disease that does not usually affect a certain gender (e.g., breast cancer in men).
- A family member diagnosed with certain combinations of diseases (e.g., breast and ovarian cancer, or heart disease and diabetes).
Handling Your History
If you discover that a serious health problem runs in your family, do not despair. While you cannot change your genes, 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 like breast, ovarian, prostate and colon cancer) in their early stages when they are most treatable.
Savvy Living is written by Jim Miller, a regular contributor to the NBC Today Show and author of "The Savvy Living” book. Any links in this article are offered as a service and there is no endorsement of any product. These articles are offered as a helpful and informative service to our friends and may not always reflect this organization’s official position on some topics. Jim invites you to send your senior questions to: Savvy Living, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070.