Start a Healthy Tradition

Start a Healthy Tradition

‘Tis the season to sing carols, bake cookies—and collect important health information from your family. Yes, you read that right. This year, start a new tradition with your family. When you’re gathering around the ol’ Yule log, collect tales about your family’s health, too. Just as a detective uses clues to crack a case, you can use what you find out about your family tree to help predict—and possibly prevent—future health problems. Here’s how:

Why it’s important to know your family health history
Knowing which conditions run in your family can help you make informed choices about your own health. HealthCorps gives this example: “If you find out that an aunt and some cousins have diabetes, you may decide to lose any excess weight, begin an exercise program and get yearly screenings for diabetes. The same holds true for heart disease, certain cancers, arthritis and other chronic conditions.”

Who should be included?
According to the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation you will want to collect health information about your “grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, siblings, cousins, children, nieces, nephews and grandchildren.”

Dr. Mehmet Oz recommends you include your spouse in your family health history. “Your spouse lives with you—at least I hope he or she does. That means you both share the same environmental exposures and, likely, similar risks. You serve as each other's personal coalmine canary,” he says.

What you're looking for
According to Michael Roizen, MD, there are three factors that you should be looking for in your medical family tree.

  • “A history of cardiovascular disease or any condition that increases the risk of genetic predisposition to vascular diseases.” These conditions can include high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes.
  • “A history of one particular type of cancer, such as breast cancer or colon cancer”
  • “A history of rare genetic illnesses such as Huntington's disease, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis or even Alzheimer's disease”

How to approach your family
Some relatives may be sensitive about divulging their health information. These tips will help you be sensitive about gathering info from your family.

  •  Share your purpose. Explain why you are collecting health information.
  •  Provide several ways to answer questions. Some people would prefer a face-to-face conversation, while others might be more comfortable answering questions over the phone or via e-mail.
  •  Word questions carefully. Keep your questions short and to the point.
  •  Be a good listener. As your relatives talk about their health problems, listen without judgment or comment.
  •  Respect privacy. Respect your family’s wishes if they don’t want to share information with you or if they don’t want you to share details with anyone other than your doctor.

Research by Cathy Poley

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