Your Family’s Health Is Your Health

“How could this happen to me?”

This is what one of my colleagues says her mother kept saying after she found out she had heart disease.

Nicole GreeneJane* thought she’d done everything right. Before she was diagnosed at 67, she felt like she was in the best shape of her life. She exercised daily, chose mostly healthy foods, didn’t drink or smoke, and kept her cholesterol and blood pressure under control. She felt great — until Jane experienced an unusual pressure in her chest while hiking. One of her friends had recently passed away from a heart attack, so Jane took it seriously. Luckily, so did her doctor. A series of tests found serious blockages in Jane’s arteries. She needed heart surgery, so she underwent a triple bypass a little more than three months after that first feeling of chest pressure.

Jane’s diagnosis prompted most of her five siblings to see a health professional to determine their risk. Jane’s brother Tim, who had some shortness of breath, received a similar diagnosis. He also needed heart surgery and had it around the same time as Jane.

While both Jane and Tim are on their way to a full recovery, they and their families were caught off guard. They didn’t think they were at risk of heart disease. They both led generally healthy lives and hadn’t heard of any family history. But after their diagnoses, they learned for the first time that two of their uncles had heart disease in their 70s and 80s.

I wanted to share this story because it’s Family Health History Month. It’s a time to talk with your relatives about the health of your family tree. After all, if you have a close family member with a chronic disease like heart disease, stroke, diabetes, or cancer, you may be more likely to develop that disease yourself. Family history is also important if you’re planning to become pregnant. You’ll want to know whether there’s a family history of conditions like birth defects and development disabilities.

Since it’s something you can’t control, recognizing the role that your family’s health history plays in your life may feel a little scary. But knowing your family health history allows you to be proactive by reducing your risk in ways you can control and watching for certain signs and symptoms that something might be wrong. For example, if your doctor or nurse knows that certain health issues run in your family, they can recommend smart lifestyle changes to help lower your risk. These changes might include quitting smoking, making healthier foods choices, or getting more physical activity. Your doctor or nurse might also recommend certain screening tests that can help catch problems early, when they are often easier to treat. But they can’t make those kinds of personalized recommendations if you don’t know your family health history.

The best way to understand your family health history is to talk about it with your relatives, and what better time to do that than when you’re together for the holidays? We’re here to help you prepare and collect the information you need. Try these tips:

  1. Start with what you know. Make a list of your blood relatives. That means starting with your parents, siblings, and any children you have. Then move on to your extended family, like grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and half-siblings. Once you have your list, write down any diseases and conditions you already know about.

If you’re adopted, you can ask your adoptive partners whether they have any medical information about your birth parents. The adoption agency also may have information available. If you have a relationship with your birth parents, you can ask them directly.

  1. Talk to your family. Chat with your relatives about what they know about your family’s health history. If they don’t already know, tell them why it’s an important tool you can all use to protect your health. Ask them what they know about any relatives who have passed away. Then share with them the history you’ve compiled and ask them whether anything is missing. Some families talk well together in groups, reminding each other of relatives and illnesses they might have forgotten.
  1. Ask the right questions. You want to know whether your relatives have any chronic diseases or conditions and if they know of any in the family (past and present). Remember, high blood pressure and cholesterol count as conditions you want to track. You also want to ask them how old they or your relatives were when they were diagnosed. Lastly, if you don’t know, ask about your family’s ancestry.
  1. Organize and save your information. You can organize and update your family health history information using free online tools. My Family Health Portrait is easy to use and allows you to enter your family health history, share it with your relatives, and update it over time. The best part is that you can print it to bring to your next checkup. This will help your doctor or nurse make recommendations to help you stay healthy.

I know it might feel like this is just one more thing you need to do during an already busy time of year, but it can also be an opportunity to connect with your family. Health may not be something you talk about often, so you might cover new ground or discover something new (and have a chance to reminisce) about a departed loved one. Take your time and enjoy what I hope will be a rewarding journey. When you know your health history, your whole family benefits.

*Details about the individuals in this blog post have been changed to protect their privacy.