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Reconciling Your Past In Texas, Or What You Should Know About Your Medical History

Aug 17, 2007
Your family's medical history can provide insight into the diseases and conditions that are common to you and your relatives. Use this history for clues about your risk for certain diseases and conditions. Family gatherings in Dallas, Houston or anywhere else in Texas can be fun and memorable. They are also an ideal time to catch up on family news and information, including your family's health history. By mapping your family medical history, you can help identify some health risks you may face in the years ahead and plan for measures to minimize or eliminate those risks.

What is a family medical history?

A family medical history or medical family tree is a record of illnesses traced among family members. It looks like the family tree you might have drawn in school, with, of course, the addition of health information. This tree shows the relationships between each family member. And, depending on how much information you're able to get for each relative, your medical family tree may end up being very detailed, while including health issues each family member faced.

What are the advantages of family medical history?

By compiling a family medical history, you can help your doctor spot patterns of specific conditions and diseases among family members. Your doctor and other healthcare professionals can use your family's medical history - sometimes called a pedigree - for a number of things, including:

* Diagnosing a medical condition
* Determining whether you may benefit from preventive measures to lower your risk of a specific disease
* Deciding what medical tests to run
* Identifying other members of your family who are at risk of developing certain diseases
* Calculating your risk of certain diseases
* Calculating your risk of passing certain conditions on to your children

What can't your family medical history tell you?

A family medical history doesn't necessarily help everyone looking for answers about hereditary health concerns. For instance:

* If you're adopted, family medical histories only work for blood relatives. And if you are adopted and don't know your biological parents, your family's medical history won't tell you about your risk of inherited diseases.

* Don't use it to predict your future. Whether you'll actually end up with an inherited condition depends on your health habits, especially diet and exercise. Knowing now that you're at risk of certain diseases can motivate you to change any unhealthy behaviors.

It provides limited insight into small families. If you have few siblings and cousins, it could be more difficult to identify family health patterns.

Someday it may be possible, and affordable, to use genetic testing to predict all of the diseases you're at risk for. Until then, your family's medical history is probably the best way to look into your possible future.

Gathering information about your family's medical history.

Interview your relatives in person or on the phone. Or see if they are willing to take a few minutes at your next family reunion to answer your questions. Talking with your relatives can also help you renew or build relationships, as well as gain valuable medical knowledge.

Devise a questionnaire for your family. This should include questions about medical conditions your relatives have and their health habits, such as smoking, diet and exercise. Also include:

* Can you provide significant dates, including birth dates and other approximate dates when diseases/conditions were diagnosed?

* What major diseases has the family experienced? Examples: heart disease, stroke, cancer, depression, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, obesity, blindness and deafness. At what age were these diseases or conditions diagnosed? Was treatment successful?

* Any relatives have a tendency for other conditions: allergies, asthma, migraines or frequent colds?

* Have infertility, miscarriages, stillbirths or infant deaths taken place in the family? If so, what was the cause?

* Any history of birth defects, learning disabilities or mental retardation?

* What is the family's dominant racial and ethnic background? Some diseases are more common among members of certain races and ethnicities.

* Is there any other information that may be relevant to the family medical history?

There are other sources of information you could include, such as death certificates, which are available through your state health department, and family records, which might include letters, census records or obituaries.

Try to gather as much information on as many generations of relatives as you can, including your parents, grandparents, sisters, brothers, half brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, children and grandchildren. If you're married and have children, include your spouse's family history as well.

Make sure the information is as accurate as possible. If you don't have information regarding what caused a family member's death, don't guess. Incorrect information will give you incorrect results. Do your best to collect solid information about your closest relatives, which would be your immediate family.

What can I do if a relative doesn't want to share their medical information?

You might come across some relatives who prefer to keep their health information private. There may also be relatives who do not want to talk about an uncle's alcoholism, a niece's treatment for mental illness, a nephew's dyslexia or a grandmother's Alzheimer's disease. Use tact and compassion to overcome this hurdle.

In addition, consider these strategies to get family members to open up and share personal information:

* Emphasize that your purpose is to create a record that will help you determine whether you and your relatives have a family history of certain diseases or health conditions. Make the completed medical history available to other family members so that they can also share the information with their doctors.

* Ask a question several different ways. Some people may be more willing to share health information in a face-to-face meeting. Others may prefer answering your questions by mail or e-mail.

* Word each question carefully. Don't start with personal questions. Begin your interview by asking general questions about the whole family and then let your relative volunteer his or her personal health information.

* Be a good listener. As your relatives talk about their health problems, let them speak without interruption. Listen without judgment or comment.

* Respect privacy. As you collect information about your relatives, respect their right to confidentiality. Some people may not want to share any health information with you. Or they may not want this information revealed to anyone other than you and your doctor.

Now share your family medical history with your doctor.

Take your completed medical history to your next doctor's appointment. Your doctor can help you analyze disease patterns and can talk with you about your risk of developing certain diseases. If you're considering genetic testing, your doctor can discuss this with you and determine whether genetic testing is right for you.

You're a young, healthy Texan and you certainly want to continue to stay healthy now and as you get older. So a comprehensive medical history might just help you pinpoint and avoid problems in the future. The right individual health insurance plan might also help you with your long-term fitness and health goals.
About the Author
Pat Carpenter writes for Precedent Insurance Company. Precedent puts a new spin on health insurance. Learn more at Precedent.com
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