EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 1, 2013

Family health histories can help with diagnosis

Elder Q&A
Rosanne DiStefano

---- — Q: My husband passed away this year after a long illness. For several reasons I still question the official cause of death. Now my stepdaughter is experiencing some unexplained, undiagnosed health problems. I am worried there may be a genetic factor involved. My husband’s parents died at a rather young age so I don’t know a lot about their overall health. How do we go about gathering a family history?

A: Your question has excellent timing for many reasons. The Acting Surgeon General Boris Lushniak declared Thanksgiving as “Family Health History Day”. The holiday may have passed but the importance for all of us to share medical history with other family members remains of vital importance. It is crucial to be informed of all medical diagnoses of previous generations. If everyone collectively is aware of this information before an illness occurs steps can be taken to reduce the chances of developing the same condition later in life.

There are options for starting to gather health information. This is sometimes accomplished during a family get together when most relatives are present and the conversation can flow back and forth. One person may remember something about a deceased relative that others have forgotten but don’t allow this to turn into a gossip session. Be aware this method may not be appropriate for everyone and each individual’s privacy must be respected and protected. In other instances the information is gathered one on one giving each family member the option of providing information in person, over the phone, by mail or email. Always explain clearly why the questions are being asked and how the information will be used.

Realistically and unfortunately there are many conditions that tend to run in families such as heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes and certain cancers. Always provide relevant information to your primary physician, consulting specialists and in the event of any hospitalization. Once the physician has the family background he/she can evaluate future risks and make a determination about suggested genetic testing and screening for potential conditions. No one can predict the future but understanding what diseases have stricken other family members can help to keep you healthy and provide immediate treatment if an illness occurs.

My Family Health Portrait is a handy tool to gather health information about relatives and share this with other family members. The document can be saved and updated as additional data is discovered. This document can be located on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website at https://familyhistory.hhs.gov/fhh-web/home.action. There are numerous other websites that provide direction on documenting your family health history, however you decide to proceed don’t delay in tackling this project.

Do you have a question? We encourage inquiries and comments from our readers. Direct correspondence to ro@esmv.org or Elder Services of the Merrimack Valley, Inc. 360 Merrimack Street B#5, Lawrence, MA 01843. Rosanne DiStefano is the Executive Director of Elder Services of the Merrimack Valley, Inc. For additional information or to schedule an appointment call 1-800-892-0890.