How well do you know your own history? If you’re like many Americans, you’ve likely dabbled in a bit of genealogy from time to time – pestering relatives for clues that uncover your roots in America: when your family arrived, what sort of jobs relatives held, where family members lived and died. In doing so, have you ever considered uncovering your family’s health history as well? This oft-overlooked bit of information can reveal many clues to illnesses you may currently be experiencing, or prone to experience as you move through life. And, it’s important too, because finding out this information very well could save your life. With the right tools, it’s a simple thing to put together as well.
Why You Should CareFirst off, it’s important to understand DNA is not a predictor of destiny. While your genetic makeup may make those in your family prone to certain illnesses and behaviors, science suggests lifestyle choices and environment play an even larger role in how we age. So, being aware lifestyle choices and environments that can contribute to these diseases is critical. For example, if your family is prone to heart disease, heavy smoking and a poor diet, would be choices worth avoiding. Likewise, a largely sedentary life and poor diet would be worth combatting if diabetes ran in your family.
Here are some of the more common illnesses that tend to run in families*:
- Alzheimer’s disease or dementia
- Birth defects
- Cancer (breast, colon, lung, prostate, ovarian, and other cancers)
- Depression Heart disease or sudden heart attack
- Other heart problems
- High blood pressure and high cholesterol
- Pregnancy losses, stillbirths, and miscarriages
- Stroke or blood clots
What Questions to AskGenerally, you want to get a feel for what illnesses family members tend to possess, when those illnesses first came about, how those concerns were managed, and how they impacted your relative’s life. For example, if alcohol has been an historic problem, was depression an issue as well? Often, the two go hand-in-hand. Also, did the alcoholism progress to a point where the person’s life was affected by it (illness, death, etc.)? This sort of questioning will guide you beyond, “Uncle Joe drank and smoke a lot, and died young of cancer.” Well, what kind of cancer?
Understanding when health concerns first manifest is critical to knowing if you, or your children, should undergo early screening (as with some cancers), or if it would be prudent to seek mental health counseling for family members experiencing depression, for example.
What to do with The AnswersThe key to this exercise lies in what happens next – taking action. Once you’ve gathered all the data you can – a family gathering is a great place to get this done – (here’s a toolkit!), share the information with your living relatives. You’ll also want to share it with your physician so they’re in the loop as well. Lastly, keep it up to date, by adding to it when significant life events occur, or you become aware of new information.
There are a number of family health history resources you can dig into online that will help you ferret out this information… much of it fun for kids and adults alike. We love the amazing toolkits from the Utah Department of Health’s Genomics Program. Check it out!
Finally, think of this quest as a mystery game of sorts (your kids will love it!), and stay healthy year in and year out – your family is counting on you!