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Does it run in the family? How to create a family health portrait

Dear Savvy Senior: How do I go about making a family health history? Most of my relatives have died before age 65, so my doctor recently suggested I create a family history to help identify my own genetic vulnerabilities. — Approaching 50

Dear Approaching: This is a very good idea. An accurate family health history remains one of the most important tools in keeping yourself healthy as you age, and the holidays when family members come together is a great time to do it. Here’s what you should know, along with some tips and tools to help you create one.

Know your genes

Just as you can inherit your father’s height or your mother’s eye color, you can also inherit their genetic risk for diseases like cancer, diabetes, heart disease and more. If one generation of a family has high blood pressure, for example, it is not unusual for the next generation to have it, too. Therefore, tracing the illnesses suffered by your relatives can help you and your doctor predict the disorders you may be at risk for, so you can take action to keep yourself healthy.

To create a family health history, you’ll need to start by collecting some basic medical information on your first-degree relatives including your parents, siblings and children. Then move on to your grandparents, aunts, uncles and first cousins.

You need to get the specific ages of when they developed health problems like heart disease, cancer, diabetes, arthritis, dementia, depression, etc. If family members are deceased, you need to know when and how they died. If possible, include lifestyle information as well, such as diet, exercise, smoking and alcohol use.

Some relatives might not want to share their medical histories, or they might not know their family history, but whatever information you discover will be helpful.

To get information on deceased relatives, get a copy of their death certificates. This will list the cause of death and the age he or she died. To get a death certificate, contact the vital records office in the state where your relative died, or go to VitalChek.com.

Or, if you were adopted, the National Foster Care & Adoption Directory Search (see ChildWelfare.gov/nfcad) may be able to help you locate your birth parents so you can get their medical history.

Helpful tools

To get help putting together your family health history, the U.S. Surgeon General created a free web-based tool called “My Family Health Portrait” (see phgkb.cdc.gov/FHH/html) that can help you collect, organize and understand your genetic risks and even share the information with your family members and doctors.

Another good resource that provides similar assistance is the Genetic Alliance’s online tool called “Does It Run in the Family.” At FamilyHealthHistory.org you can create a customized guide on your family health history for free.

Handling the results

If you uncover some serious health risks that run in your family, don’t despair. While you can’t change your genes, you can change your habits to increase your chances of a healthy future. By eating a healthy diet, exercising and not smoking, you can offset and sometimes even neutralize your genetic vulnerabilities. This is especially true for heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis.

A family medical history can also alert you to get early and frequent screening tests, which can help detect other problems (high blood pressure, high cholesterol and cancers like breast, ovarian, prostate and colon cancers) in their early stages when they’re most treatable.


Jim Miller is a contributor to NBC-TV’s “Today” program and author of “The Savvy Senior.” Send your questions to Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070; or visit savvysenior.org.


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