Why You Need to Know Your Family

We all know that we can reduce our risk of disease by eating a healthy diet, getting enough exercise, and refraining from smoking.  We also need to realize the importance of knowing our family health history.

A family health history is a record of medical information about a person and his or her close relatives.  This includes information from three generations including children, brothers, sisters, parents, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, grandparents and cousins.

Knowing your family’s health history allows you to identify diseases you may be at risk of developing.  Having this information gives you the opportunity to work with your doctor and to take the action needed to keep you and your family healthy.

At the age of 63, I am able to review my past medical history and easily correlate it to my family history.  In the past couple of years, I have experienced two major diagnoses to which I was predisposed because of my family history.  I did know that there were some cases of breast cancer in the family. However, I did not realize the number of close relatives who had dealt with this disease.  I have always had annual mammograms which was how my breast cancer was discovered. I may not have done anything differently, knowing the family history, but I certainly would have been diligent in having the mammograms and exams performed as ordered and in a timely manner.  I am happy to say it was caught early and I have been successfully treated.

Recently, I was also diagnosed with low pressure glaucoma.  The doctors are telling me that someone in my family had or has this disease.  It is genetic.  I know of no one in my family with a medical history of this disease.  It could have been someone who suffered an early death; therefore, the disease did not have time to develop. Or, it may have been someone in the past of whom I am unaware. The importance of this information is that low pressure glaucoma can be difficult to diagnose because your eye pressure remains normal while damage is occurring to the optic nerve.  The loss of vision is gradual. Therefore, a person may not be aware of the vision loss until significant damage has taken place. Such was the case in my situation.  If I had been aware of a family history of glaucoma, I would have relayed the fact to the doctor. This information would have prompted further testing.  If the glaucoma had been caught earlier, my vision loss would have been much less.

After experiencing these situations, I realized the significance of my family health history and my health. I wanted to share with you how genetics has impacted my life. I hope that knowledge of my experience will encourage you to learn your family health history. Hopefully, it will enable you to take better care of yourself. This family information should be shared with your doctor and may aid in early diagnosis of a disease.  Early diagnosis can lead to more successful treatment of the disease.

Family health history can also identify people who are at a greater risk for common diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.  This information can encourage lifestyle changes which will help you to avoid or successfully manage diseases to which you may be predisposed.

Each year, since 2004, the Surgeon General has declared Thanksgiving to be National Family History Day.  He encourages people to talk about, and to write down, the health problems that seem to run in their families.  Although you cannot change your genetic makeup, learning about your family’s health history may help to ensure a longer, healthier future for you and your family.

Living life to the best of our abilities and taking good care of ourselves and other people will help to make the world a better place for everyone.