You have your mother’s eyes, your father’s nose and the freckles come from Grandmother Ruth. It’s interesting seeing what traits our relatives pass down through the generations. But do you know which diseases and medical conditions may be have been passed down?
“Families share many common characteristics including genetics, environment and lifestyle. These work together to determine our health history,” said Timothy J. McCann, MD, internal medicine specialist on staff at Des Peres Hospital. “For instance, if your grandfather died of a heart attack and your father had a stroke, this could mean you and your children have a higher risk of developing some form of cardiovascular disease. Some diseases like cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia can be traced to genetic mutations that run through families.”
Getting the Information
Learning about your family’s medical history can involve asking questions of living relatives or looking through family or historical documents for those who are deceased. In general, Dr. McCann recommended keeping information on close relatives such as:
- Both sets of grandparents
- Brothers and sisters
- Your children, plus nieces and nephews
If you have a family reunion planned, let others know you’re working on a family health history. You may want to volunteer to put the information in order and share it with family members. Come prepared with questions and listen carefully to the answers. Older adults may need to tell a story rather than directly answering the questions, especially if you’re trying to find out information on a deceased relative. For a complete family medical history, you’ll need the following information:
- Date of birth
- Medical conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, thyroid conditions, autoimmune diseases, cancers, etc.
- Mental health conditions such as substance abuse, bipolar disorder, etc.
- Pregnancy complications including miscarriage, stillbirth, birth defects or infertility
- Age when condition was diagnosed
- Lifestyle habits (diet, exercise, tobacco use, alcohol consumption)
If necessary, note the ethnicity of the relative. Also for any deceased relatives, find out the cause of death and age at death.
If you were adopted, ask your adoptive parents if they have any medical information on your biological parents. The adoption agency also may share some information from their files. An open adoption may mean you can ask your biological family about their health history.
The U.S. Surgeon General’s office has created an internet-based tool called “My Family Health Portrait” that can help you create your family’s health history. Once you complete the information, you can download the data and share it with family members. The information is private and confidential. You will have a private login and password. You can find out more at https://familyhistory.hhs.gov/fhh-web/home.action.
Des Peres Hospital also offers an application that can be used on digital devices such as Blackberry, Android phones, iPhones and iPads that includes a “MyData” section that allows you to input your family medical history and keep it with you. Go to http://www.despereshospital.com/app to download the free application.