The Importance Of Knowing Your Family Medical History

By Jeffrey Kreisberg

I bet you’re like me and didn’t know that, in 2004, the Surgeon General declared Thanksgiving “National Family Medical History Day.”

The purpose of this new “holiday” was to encourage families to talk about and write down known, genetic health problems. Learning about your family’s health history is one sure way to help ensure a longer, healthier future together.

A recent survey found that 96 percent of Americans believe that knowing their family history is important. If it’s so important, why have only one-third of us has ever tried to gather our health history?

We may have missed Thanksgiving, but with family gathering events like Easter and Passover right around the corner, I thought it was important to review why discussing our medical histories is important:

  1. If your doctor is trying to match your symptoms with a possible disease, knowledge of existing genetic disposition might help them pinpoint the problem.
  2. Many diseases can be passed along to our children due to our genetic make-up (vulnerability due to genetic make-up). Knowing you’re more susceptible can help you prevent (or monitor symptoms of) various illnesses.

Doctors have known for a long time that common diseases like heart disease, cancer (think about the BRCA gene mutation in breast cancer) and diabetes, as well rare diseases like hemophilia, cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia, can run in families. If one generation of a family has high blood pressure, it is not unusual for the next generation to have similarly high blood pressure.

Tracing the illnesses suffered by your parents, grandparents and other blood relatives can help your doctor predict the disorders you may be at risk for, so you can take action before it’s too late. For instance, you might be more compelled to control your high blood pressure before it causes a stroke or kills your kidneys.

This is called preventive medicine, and it cannot be successfully accomplished unless you know your family medical history.

To help focus our attention on the importance of family history, the Surgeon General, in cooperation with other agencies within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has created an online tool to help us create a portrait of our family’s health.

At the next family gathering, please go to this website and organize your family medical history and share it with your healthcare providers. It’s an easy way to make sure all of us continue to lead a healthy, and long, life.

[Photo By melanerpist]

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