Holidays Best Time to Chart Your Family Health History

Family history strong indicator of disease risk

family at holiday dinner table

By: Toby Cosgrove, MD

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For many families, Thanksgiving Day is one of those rare occasions when multiple generations gather together in one place. That’s why this day of feasting, football and family has also been deemed National Family Health History Day by the U.S. Surgeon General.

Family history is one of the strongest indicators of disease risk. By knowing your family history, you can make educated, proactive healthcare decisions for you and your family.

While certain diseases – like heart disease, cancer and diabetes – run in families, there may be health and lifestyle choices that you can make to avoid developing these diseases.

At the very least, knowledge of your family’s health history can aid in early diagnosis and treatment when illnesses arise.

RELATED: Have a Health History Heart to Heart

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Talking is only the beginning

Talking about these issues is just a start, though. To get the most out of your information-gathering efforts, be sure to get organized, plan your questions, write down the answers and plan to share the information with your healthcare providers.

Fortunately, several sources provide easy-to-use guidance. These include:

RELATED: 8 Tips for a Better Family Health History

4 steps to get started

Here are step-by-step instructions to get you started:

  1. First, make a list of relatives. Begin with your parents, siblings and children then branch out to include grandparents, uncles and aunts, nieces and nephews, and half-siblings. For those who are still living, write down their age and date of birth. For those who are deceased, note the cause and age at death.
  2. Ask for details. For example, find out whether any relatives have been affected by cancer, heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, osteoporosis, mental disorders, substance abuse, or other health problems. Include the age when symptoms began or the disease was diagnosed.
  3. Dig deeper. Additional questions can touch on medications, surgeries, hospitalization, and lifestyle habits, such as smoking, exercise and diet.
  4. Share with your healthcare providers. All of this information is only useful, though, if you share it with your healthcare providers.

RELATED: Top 3 Benefits of a Digital Family History

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How healthcare providers use this information

At Cleveland Clinic, patients can use the MyFamily questionnaire to upload their family history to their personal online MyChart account. Algorithms will automatically calculate the patient’s disease risk based on the data, integrating results into the electronic health records system – meaning that it will be available to any caregiver they see within the Cleveland Clinic health system.

Even without an automated computer program, caregivers can use the information to guide patient care, discussing family history at appointments and using it to proactively encourage lifestyle changes, to create disease-prevention plans, to suggest screenings, or to refer patients to specialists or genetic counselors.

Personalized healthcare holds great promise for the future of medicine. But the simple, low-tech approach of gathering your family’s history is just as important as any genetic innovation that may be coming our way, perfectly blending our past with the future.

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