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Use the holidays to collect a family health history

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Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 10:48 AM

Holidays are all about making memories.

At family gatherings, relatives can't resist sharing the latest joys and ordeals related to their work, children and, of course, their health. Oy! My sciatica!

But instead of making this a too-much-information moment, health professionals wish families used the holidays as a time to sit down and create a detailed family health history.

"We need to be more aware of our health history and control what we can," says Dr. Robert Sanchez, a cardiologist at the Tampa Bay Heart Institute at St. Petersburg's Northside Hospital.

From asthma and heart disease to cancer and pregnancy loss, some conditions are more likely to be found among relatives. Knowing exactly what killed Grandma or Grandpa doesn't mean you're going to get a certain disease. But it can identify a risk that might otherwise be overlooked.

An estimated 96 percent of Americans realize the value of such information, says a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services survey. Still, just 30 percent of families can provide their doctor with specifics about the health of their parents, siblings and other close relatives.

Sanchez says family health information has directly affected and improved his recommended treatment. He always asks patients about heart disease, especially among first-degree relatives, as it immediately increases the risk two to three times. Having a sibling who has heart disease at 60 years or younger increases your risk five-fold, he says. "Unfortunately, many of our patients don't know."

Bringing up illness at the holidays may be met with reluctance. Living relatives may feel some shame or guilt about disclosing private details. The Mayo Clinic recommends that you clearly explain that you will respect everyone's privacy and that you offer to keep details confidential.

Also, create an environment where loved ones are comfortable. Maybe the holiday gathering is where you introduce the idea of collecting health histories. Offer to ask short and to-the-point questions in person, on the phone or by email. Also be willing to share your information with others.

Conversation is only one way to collect the information. Family members with old medical records or death certificates listing a relative's cause of death may be able to help.

Your discussion should go beyond if and when a relative suffered a heart attack or is battling cancer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stresses knowing details that may increase your risks including:

Senior family members often are a good place to start. They will remember when and how different relatives died. They also may recall lifestyle habits that may have played a part in the disease.

Sanchez, who compiled his own family history a few years ago, says someday a genetic test will likely be able to provide all the clues we need to monitor health. But until then, good old-fashioned family talks will have to do. And that's not such a bad thing, he says.

"You can give your family a great gift."

Make a list of relatives, questions to ask:

The family’s all together, but how do you get them to share details for a family health history?

Beforehand, compile the names of blood relatives you want to include, such as parents, brothers and sisters, and your children, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services suggests.

Also, try to include or at least discuss grandparents, uncles and aunts, nieces and nephews, and any half-brothers or half-sisters.

Family ancestry can be a good place to start. Questions offering clues helpful to your health include:

What is our family's ethnicity and nation of origin?

What diseases did deceased relatives face, and what caused their death? Make sure to include the age when they died.

When discussing living relatives, keep the discussion focused and simple. Possible questions to ask include:

Do you have a chronic disease? That includes heart disease, diabetes, or conditions such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol.

What serious diseases have you or other relatives faced? Examples: cancer, stroke.

What age were you or the loved ones when the disease or condition was diagnosed?


mshedden@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7365 Twitter @maryshedden

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