Just Ask! - - Archived

Take advantage of holiday conversations with loved ones—for your health

Beyond exchanging hugs and old stories, family gatherings present an opportunity to talk to relatives about hereditary health issues. It may not be easy to ask about your grandma’s heart attack or your uncle’s battle with cancer, but these questions could save your life.

“Your family medical history can help you understand your own risks,” said Shawn Sheble, a registered nurse with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “Conditions most commonly inherited include heart disease, hypertension, asthma, diabetes, osteoporosis, certain types of cancer, and some mental illnesses.”

Knowing what to expect could lead to screenings or early diagnosis, and even lifestyle changes that will keep you in good condition for years to come. For example, Sheble said, if a relative has suffered breast and colon cancer at an early age, you may be predisposed too. A family history of high cholesterol could put you at greater risk of heart disease or stroke. Timely tests could rule out or identify problems, giving you the chance to take immediate action.

“Gather information by talking to whoever you can, including grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, and your parents,” Sheble said. “Let them know you are looking out for your own health and the health of future generations. Be sure to tell your doctor what you’ve learned.”

For the sake of etiquette, try pulling someone aside for a one-on-one conversation rather than blurting out tough questions while gathered around the dinner table. The subjects of disease and death are obviously painful so it helps to explain how this information can help you and many others.

Five Key Questions

You can start by choosing from the following questions suggested by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

  1. Do you have any chronic diseases, such as heart disease or diabetes, or health conditions, such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol?
  2. Have you had any other serious diseases, such as cancer or stroke? (If cancer, ask what type.)
  3. How old were you when each of these diseases or health conditions was diagnosed? (Even the approximate age is useful.)
  4. From what countries or regions did your ancestors come to the United States?
  5. What were the causes and ages of death for relatives who have died?

Keep a Record

Be sure to write down the information you gather and keep documenting your family health history. The U.S. Surgeon General offers a helpful tool called My Family Health Portrait, a free online application you can use to keep everything organized. You can create your family health history at FamilyHistory.HHS.gov.

Sharing is Caring

Knowing is not enough, warns the CDC. Share any health records you attain along with any results from genetic testing you have done, especially with younger members of your family. If you have a medical condition, tell your family members about your diagnosis. And, of course, talk to your doctor.

Beat the Odds

Despite genetics, you can lessen your potential for disease by maintaining a healthy diet, getting sufficient exercise, quitting smoking, and cutting back on cocktails, according to the World Health Organization’s Department of Noncommunicable Diseases and Mental Health.

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