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Knowing Your Family’s Medical History Can Be a Lifesaver

Have this healthy conversation when you gather together this year

Family and friends enjoying social gathering at home during Christmas
Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

If you’re looking to spark healthier table conversations at family gatherings, consider turning the talk to just that — health. Family get-togethers are a great opportunity to share information about medical issues among close relatives. What you learn could be vital to a healthy future for all.

“Having those conversations, whether it’s done in person or done virtually, is really important because we know major chronic diseases are such a burden in our country. Heart disease, diabetes, asthma, COPD, mental health issues, arthritis, cancer — these often have aspects of family history and genetics,” Kyu Rhee, M.D., senior vice president at CVS Health and chief medical officer at Aetna, said in an interview.

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About 40 percent (225 of 560) of diseases reviewed by researchers had a genetic component, according to a 2019 study published in Nature Genetics. Researchers used a database of nearly 45 million patient records (provided by Aetna) to estimate the influence of genes and environment on the health of fraternal and identical twins.

Understanding personal risk factors can help families plan around their unique needs and take charge of their health, Rhee says. It’s important to gather detailed medical histories about grandparents, parents and children that can be shared. The history should include any chronic disease such as cancers, heart failure, diabetes, asthma, allergies, dementia and mental illness. That doesn’t mean every illness is linked to your genetic code; environmental and behavioral factors can also put you at greater risk for disease. Smokers, for example, are at higher risk of developing lung disease or COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).

Keys to A Healthier Life

Everyone wants to stay in good health. Kyu Rhee, M.D., senior vice president at CVS Health and chief medical officer at Aetna, emphasizes what he calls the “big five” keys to a healthier life.

“If you maintain those five healthy habits, you can add more than a decade to your life expectancy, which can give you a lot more holidays with your family,” Rhee says.

What information to gather

Rhee suggests that you build a family medical history like a genealogist might build a family tree that includes your grandparents, parents, siblings and children. The broader you can expand the group the better, but the key is to get usable information on medical issues.

For each, you’ll want to know of any chronic illnesses they may have had. It’s important to know more than simply what medical condition relatives have, Rhee says. You also want to answer these questions:

1. What age were they when the disease was diagnosed?

As Rhee explains, there is a “very big difference” in knowing whether a relative was diagnosed with heart disease at age 50 or at age 80. The same is true for breast cancer. If it runs early in your family, you may want to be screened earlier than what the standard guidelines suggest.

2. How severe is the illness?

You want to know if your family member experienced any major complications related to the disease: for example, if they had vision loss due to diabetes, Rhee says.

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“Even though you may not have the illness, a strong family history would mean you should be a lot more assertive about how you prevent and detect it. And if it had horrible consequences in your family, such as blindness or amputation, the approach to treat it may be more aggressive,” he says.

3. If a family member died, what was the cause?

“The cause of death at passing is important,” Rhee says. “My father died of prostate cancer. While he was diagnosed with it at a later age, it makes me and my brother more aware about the importance of prostate screening.”

He suggests noting any other chronic illnesses that your loved one may have had when they died.

Laura M. Koehly is also a big proponent of building a family medical history. The chief and senior investigator in the social and behavioral research branch at the National Human Genome Research Institute of the National Institutes of Health suggested in an article published this year at aarp.org that family gatherings are a good opportunity to have such a conversation. For an easy way to get started, she suggests turning to a free online tool to make the process easier: My Family Health Portrait, developed by the U.S. surgeon general. The form can be downloaded, shared with other family members and updated whenever new health information becomes available. Koehly suggests appointing a family curator to maintain it. Her institute is working on more tools to train families on how to collect and document health information.

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Why it matters

Having a detailed family medical history is important because it can alert you and your primary health care provider to what diseases you may be more at risk of developing. That information can be used to adopt lifestyle changes that could help prevent the disease, as well as establish early screenings to detect the disease as early as possible should it develop.

“There’s a lot you can do about family history once you get it,” Rhee says. “There is work you can do to prevent disease, work you can do to detect it early, and important work you can do to treat it.”

For example, if you have a family history of diabetes, you can adopt a diet and exercise program and maintain a healthy weight to reduce the risk of developing the disease. You can also get regular screenings for diabetes to diagnose it early so it can be treated and hopefully avoid some of the health consequences that can come from untreated diabetes, such as heart disease, kidney problems, neuropathies or blindness, Rhee says.

Within his own family, Rhee says, his Korean grandfather had gastrointestinal (GI) issues, which helped identify acid reflux and GI in his father. “So my brother and I are careful about diet,” he says.

Once you have put together a family medical history, don’t just file it away. Rhee suggests you bring a copy with you when you see your primary care provider. “Time is the most precious commodity with doctors,” he says. “If you do that work for me, I appreciate it.”