Health Matters: Understanding Your Family History
By Dr. Emily Lanzola
The holidays are here – a time when family becomes the focus as we all take time off work, pack our bags, and travel to Grandma’s house for holiday gatherings. And this holiday season, I encourage you to take some of that time spent with these loved ones to learn more about your family’s health history. Knowing that you have Grandpa’s chin or the same unique colored eyes as Aunt May is all well and good, but you may have inherited more than that. And understanding your family’s medical history could, in fact, save your life.
Several health risks can be passed down among family members, from generation to generation. Families often share similar environments and lifestyles as well, which can predispose you to developing certain diseases.
Knowing that background can help pave the way to a healthier future for you and your children by enabling us, as your provider, to assess your risk more accurately. That leads to earlier detection, more effective treatments, and in some cases proactive measures that can even reduce your risk of getting sick.
Heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, certain cancers, and type 2 diabetes are all ailments that serve as examples of conditions that are often more common among those with a family history. While you can’t change your genetics and the inherited risks that come along with them, it’s not a foregone conclusion that you will develop those conditions.
Lifestyle changes can go a long way in decreasing your risk of developing health problems, or at the very least, can push back the onset by many years. This can be as simple as eating a healthy diet and adding more exercise into your routine.
It can also be much more specific to your inherited risks, such as taking aspirin for a history of heart problems or watching your time in the sun if your family has a history of skin cancer. Seemingly small changes can make a big difference in the long run.
Health Knowledge Is Power
Knowledge is power. For example, there are lots of guidelines on when men and women should begin getting various health screenings. However, knowing you are predisposed because of your genetics, allows you to begin those screenings – such as a mammogram or colonoscopy – at an earlier age and even have them done more frequently. That way, if a problem does develop, it’s detected quickly and can often be addressed before it becomes a life-threatening illness.
The easiest way to protect your health and that of future generations is to ask questions – talk to your relatives about their health. Starting with your parents and siblings is key, as these first-degree relatives will be the most telling for your own health risks. However, your grandparents and even aunts and uncles can also provide important clues. That makes this time of year the perfect time to get started, as family gatherings can be the best time to discuss these issues.
If working your questions into a typical conversation seems too awkward, you can also put together a health history sheet that you can share with family members to see if they’re willing to fill it out on their own time. Don’t worry if they’re not completely forthcoming or maybe can’t recall some things, as you may be able to fill in the gaps with some research using public records such as death certificates. Genetic testing is also an option.
Keep in mind, a family health history isn’t a one-time activity. Once you have it in place, you’ll want to be sure to keep it updated with any new health information as you learn about it. Be sure to record any information you gather in a safe place, one that perhaps will also make it easy to share back with your family.
However, the most important person to share it with is your doctor. We can review the information with you and then work together to customize your care. It might take some extra time and effort, but this tool really can help improve the health of your family for generations to come.
*Dr. Emily Lanzola is a family medicine physician who recently completed her residency at Firelands Regional Medical Center, where she was chief resident. She believes in the importance of “family” in family medicine and values her role as an educator and guide in helping her patients manage their healthcare. Dr. Lanzola is a graduate of the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine and the College of Wooster.