The true importance of family health history

November 29, 2000

ROCHESTER, MINN. -- Consider the odds: Ten to 15 percent of people with colon cancer have a family history of the disease. As many as 25 percent of children of alcoholics are likely to become alcoholics themselves. If someone in your family has diabetes or high blood pressure, you are at greater risk for those health problems. But does a family history of a disease mean you are doomed to get it yourself? Not necessarily, says the December issue of Mayo Clinic Women's HealthSource. Putting together a family health history and knowing you are at risk for certain diseases may in fact help you ward off medical problems by inspiring you to take charge of your health.

A family health history may take some time and a little research, but it is a worthwhile investment. Most hereditary diseases, such as heart disease, certain cancers and high blood pressure and diabetes, have a lifestyle component. Diet, exercise, stress and other factors may contribute greatly to their development. Understanding your increased risk can help steer you away from detrimental behaviors. It can also help you know whether you should be tested for certain conditions earlier or more frequently than average.

The first step is creating a family tree. You don't need names, just relationships. The American Medical Association has a sample form available online at (click on personal/family health history). The AMA form lets you map back to your grandparents, but other experts recommend going back three or four generations and including great-aunts, great-uncles, aunts, uncles, first cousins and siblings. Try to include relationships, sex, year of birth and death, illnesses and health conditions, age of diagnosis, cause of death and significant lifestyle factors such as smoking or obesity.

You can bring the completed document to your doctor for review. Your physician may recommend certain preventive measures or testing based on patterns in your family's health. But even if you find some serious problems among your ancestors, don't let your history frighten you. Work with your doctor to plan a healthier future for yourself, your children and future generations of your family.
Shelly Plutowski
507-284-2417 (days)
507-284-2511 (evenings)

Mayo Clinic

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