If you’ve ever tried to track your ancestors, you know that family history is a complex puzzle with many missing pieces. Constructing your family medical history is an even more complex process, but if you persevere and do it right, you can gain important information that can affect your own health and longevity.
What you do know about your family health history could be inaccurate or incomplete. You may have heard that your grandmother died of “heart trouble.” But precisely what was the health concern – atherosclerosis, high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, atrial fibrillation?
The U.S. Surgeon General’s Family History Initiative encourages all American families to learn more about their health history. And a web-based tool has been developed to aid the process (My Family Health Portrait: familyhistory.hhs.gov.)
Since 2004, Thanksgiving Day has been designated as official Family History Day, a time to sit down with members of your extended family and share information. With the holiday a few months away, you have time to do some serious planning.
The first step could be to go on-line and print out copies of the HHS Family Health Portrait or the AMA’s Family History Form.
These forms ask for information about your own children and about your parents, siblings, grandparents, uncles and aunts – at least three generations. Fill in all the information that you know, including age and cause of death for each family member. Then pass these forms around at the next family gathering for corrections and additions.
The cause of death may not be available or may not be as relevant as it seems. Your sister died in her sleep at age 78; was it a heart attack, stroke or some other medical concern? Your father’s official cause of death was “uremic poisoning” – kidney breakdown following a bout of the flu. Just two weeks before, though, he suffered a change of personality and physical function that his doctor thought could have been due to a mini-stroke.
More important than actual cause, at least in some cases, is the age of death. Death before age 60, whatever the cause, is ordinarily a sign of medical problems that could be considered genetic risks.