BY PETE ALFANO
Have you ever sat in a doctor’s office before the first visit or in front of a computer at home documenting your family health history and thought, “This would go a lot faster if I just included the diseases we didn’t have?”
It may take up a lot of your time, but a record of your family history provides medical professionals with the background information they use to help you avoid the genetic road map you may be unwittingly following, thus reducing your risk of life-threatening diseases. Suppose your primary care physician advises you to adopt a lifestyle that would give you the best possible chance of avoiding the heart attack, diabetes, and cancer prevalent on your family tree. Why take a chance even if the diseases could be explained away because these relatives smoked a pack of cigarettes a day, were sedentary, or had poor eating habits?
Conversely, just because there may be little or no family history of serious disease, that doesn’t mean you can feast on fried food seven days a week. Exercise, good nutrition, and avoiding tobacco are still the keys to a healthy lifestyle.
There’s also a growing awareness that life-threatening disorders are not as gender specific as once assumed. Women can have heart attacks, for example, even if the symptoms are different. Although rare, men can develop breast cancer, especially if more than one female in their immediate family has it. You wouldn’t know it from TV commercials, but osteoporosis can afflict men, not just women. You should give your doctors as much information as possible.
Ideally, family history will include at least three generations. That can be problematic because great grandparents, grandparents, uncles, and aunts may be deceased. Often, however, surviving relatives can fill in the blanks on medical conditions in your family. Among these conditions are high blood pressure, asthma, anemia, diabetes, stroke, clinical depression, and dementia.
For example, let’s say a patient’s father, grandfather, and uncle all had colon cancer. That would make it imperative that the patient be screened for colon cancer well before turning 45. If a patient’s mom, sister, and grandmother had breast cancer, then earlier breast cancer screening is a must at an early age.
Other factors play a part in knowing your family history. Is there longevity in your family? How old were relatives and family members when they were first diagnosed with a disease?
Race and ethnicity are also part of the equation. For example, Heart.org reports that 40% of African Americans have high blood pressure (hypertension), which often presents at an early age. Since hypertension can be a silent killer with no obvious symptoms, it is important to know how prevalent it is on your family tree. That is also true for sickle cell disease and thalassemia, blood disorders with a strong genetic link.
Knowing your family history doesn’t guarantee you will avoid any major medical conditions but being aware they exist will enable you to make lifestyle choices to lower the risk. Coupled with an annual physical examination and early screening for diseases such as breast and colon cancer, you could add years to your life.
Risk and Reward of Knowing Your Family History
Assessing your risk for certain diseases will help your doctor help you avoid or minimize
your risk. According to MayoClinic.org, your doctor can:
- Recommend changes in diet or other lifestyle habits
- Ask about medications or treatments to reduce the risk of disease
- Decide which diagnostic tests to order and how often to screen
- Determine whether you or family members should get a specific genetic test
- Identify a condition that might not otherwise be considered
- Identify other family members who are at risk of developing a particular disease
- Assess your risk of passing conditions on to your children