My grandfathers bequeathed me high cholesterol, Parkinson's disease and heart problems. My grandmothers added cancer and dementia. My parents chipped in skin cancer. And knowing all that...

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My grandfathers bequeathed me high cholesterol, Parkinson’s disease and heart problems. My grandmothers added cancer and dementia.

My parents chipped in skin cancer.

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And knowing all that, I have begun to unearth my own medical history.

I still need to fill in some blanks, so while family members are visiting this holiday season, I hope we’ll be asking some questions beyond “How were the roads?” and “What did you mean by that?”

U.S. health officials have suggested we use the holidays as an occasion to share not only fellowship but medical information.

Thousands of diseases have a genetic component — they “run in the family.” Some, like Huntington’s disease and sickle-cell anemia, can’t be influenced by behavior, but how you live can have an effect on others.


Resources




The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
has a Web site devoted to creating a medical history for your family: www.hhs.gov/familyhistory.


For a free printed copy
of the government’s version, call the Federal Citizen Information Center at 888-878-3256 or write to My Family Health Portrait, Pueblo, CO 81009.


Your doctor’s office
may have similar material available. Call to find out.


Some Web sites
offer additional information about constructing a family health tree, including more questions to ask and documents to look at. Try genealogy.about.com/library/
authors/ucbishop7a.htm
or www.cnn.com/HEALTH
/library/HQ/01707.html
.


If you have a family history of heart disease, for example, you can improve your chances of not getting it by keeping your blood pressure under control, exercising regularly, keeping your weight in check and not smoking.

The U.S. Health and Human Services Department offers free information about putting together a family health tree on its Web site and through the mail. But you can start right now:

Put your name at the top of a sheet of paper. Under your name, write your birth date. Then list any of your major illnesses, birth defects, allergies, vision or hearing problems, emotional or behavioral problems, such as depression or alcoholism, and chronic health problems, such as diabetes or asthma.

Do the same for your parents and your grandparents.

Add your children and grandchildren.

Then start in on other blood relatives — aunts, uncles and cousins.

Include dates and causes of death, if you know them.

Note, too, at what age conditions occurred. My grandfather’s heart problems came when he was in his mid-90s, which isn’t worrisome to me. But if you discover that it’s common for women on your mother’s side to die in their early 60s, it’s worth paying attention.

Now you know what you still need to find out.

Once you’ve constructed your family medical history, take it with you the next time you visit your doctor. It will help both of you decide what tests you should have, what conditions to watch for and what you can do to avoid disease.

A caution: Your detective work will require some sensitivity. An uncle’s treatment for mental illness might not be what everyone wants to talk about at the dinner table — or anywhere else.

But if you explain your purpose — and offer to share copies of what you find out — you might come away with some delightful family stories as well as the information you need.