Medical family histories are powerful tools

Today's online edition of the TimesDispatch from Richmond, Virginia sums up the benefits and drawbacks of medical family histories in a very readable way. Here's some of what the author Betty Booker has to say:

If Daddy died of a heart attack and Mommy had a stroke, you ought to keep yourself fit and lean. . . But, you knew that already, right? If Grandma had a stroke and Grandpop died at the office in a gray flannel suit, then you have more reason to get serious. And if your great-grandmother had a stroke cooking at the wood stove and your great-grandfather dropped dead plowing the north 40, you really do have a genetic inheritance demanding attention.

Here are some of the author's reasons for compiling histories and for genetic testing:

If you can piece together your health history, you can track disease and health patterns that could make a huge difference in your life and those of future generations. Knowing what diseases your kin had, and their causes of death, can help your doctor understand your own health problems--and better yet, teach you how to prevent them.

Preventing--or delaying--the onset of serious health problems by what you do to improve your health may prolong independence. And taking responsibility for your health based on your family history can save you a lot of pain, disability, surgeries, medicines and high medical bills.

Elders with serious health problems sometimes will get genetic testing as part of their legacy.

Some seniors elect to store DNA material to be used when more advanced tests are developed in order to help their children and grandchildren. [This is what I recently did with my husband's DNA.]

The "most common, costly and preventable" chronic health problems are heart disease; stroke; diabetes; and colon, breast, and ovarian cancer, according to
the U.S. Surgeon General. Knowing whether any of our ancestors had these problems, and making full use of the scientific information available about how to avoid these diseases or detect them early could significantly influence or own health future.

So, what are the potential problems?

Key people in our families may have already died without leaving details of their medical history. Collecting information isn't easy if your older relatives have memory problems.

The information that we collect generally is incomplete and it may not always be accurate.

The information is highly personal--"and not all of it is yours. If your history includes an aunt's breast cancer and a brother's depression, for instance, their private information should be protected."

There's always a chance your information can get into the wrong hands--especially if you complete personal family history forms online. However, online forms that are connected to databases of information can give you predictions about how your family's health history may affect your own future--if you understand what the "predictions" mean.

The author concludes: "Family health histories are part of a larger trend of data-rich medicine. . . Instead of working on a lot of hunches about how a patient should be treated--which is still pretty much how medicine works today, doctors in the future will have huge population databases to guide their decision-making about individuals based on evidence of their genes and other factors."

The steps are straightforward--if you can get the medical information you need. To start, prepare for your next family gathering--large or small--by checking out one or more of the following websites:

Enjoy! Creating your family's medical history is not only worthwhile, it's fun.

Marie Godfrey, PhD

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