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House Call: Your family health history could save your life

Published: Nov. 20, 2020 at 7:25 PM EST
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This Thanksgiving, share more than just the turkey. Share your family health history. This week on House Call, Dr. Whitney Courtney, family medicine physician at UHC Family Medicine and faculty, joins us to explain why knowing your family health history could save your life.

1). Why should you know your family health history and how can you collect it?

Family health history is a record of the diseases and health conditions in your family. You and your family members share genes. You may also have behaviors in common, such as exercise habits and what you like to eat. You may live in the same area and be exposed to similar things in the environment. Family history includes all of these factors, any of which can affect your health.

You may know a lot about your family health history or only a little. To get the complete picture, use family gatherings as a time to talk about health history. If possible, look at death certificates and family medical records. Collect information about your parents, sisters, brothers, half-sisters, half-brothers, children, grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews. Include information on major medical conditions, causes of death, age at disease diagnosis, age at death, and ethnic background. Be sure to update the information regularly and share what you have learned with your family and with your doctor. You can use the Surgeon General’s web-based tool called “My Family Health Portrait” to keep track of the information.

2). Why is family health history important to your health? If you have a close family member with a chronic disease, you may be more likely to develop that disease yourself; especially, if more than one close relative has (or had), the disease or a family member got the disease at a younger age than usual.

Collect your family health history information before visiting the doctor, and take it with you. Even if you do not know all of your family health history information, share what you do know. Family health history, even if incomplete, can help your doctor decide which screening tests you need and when those tests should start.

3). How can you use your family health history to improve your health?

You cannot change your genes, but you can change unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking, not exercising or being active, and poor eating habits. If you have a family health history of disease, you may have the most to gain from lifestyle changes and screening tests. In many cases, healthy living habits can reduce your risk for diseases that run in your family. Screening tests, such as blood sugar testing, mammograms, and colorectal cancer screening, help find early signs of disease. Finding disease early can often mean better health in the end.

However, knowing is not enough—act on your family health history!

· Has your mother or sister had breast cancer? Talk with your doctor about whether having a mammogram earlier is right for you.

· Does your mom, dad, sister, or brother have diabetes? Ask your doctor how early you should be screened for diabetes.

· Did your mom, dad, brother, or sister get colorectal (colon) cancer before age 50? Talk with your doctor about whether you should start getting colonoscopies earlier or have them done more often.

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