Have you ever investigated your roots and your family tree? Several years ago I was able to trace several of my great-grandparents back to the ship they traveled on when they arrived at Ellis Island. While you are working on your family tree, why not piece together your family health history as well?
The best place to start is with your immediate family. Your parents, brothers and sisters have the closest genetic link to you and the greatest likelihood of sharing similar conditions or diseases. Next, move on to your grandparents, aunts, uncles and as much extended family as possible. You may uncover a lot of information about your family’s health that you were never aware of.
Are there certain diseases that run in your family? Be sure to ask about the “BIG 4”- cancer, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. You should also inquire about some other common cardiovascular risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and other unhealthy risk factors they may have had. If a family member has had or died from a heart attack or stroke, were the overweight/obese, did they smoke or drink alcohol heavily, were they sedentary? If your grandfather died form a heart attack but was obese, never exercised, smoked 2 packs per day for 30 years and drank excessive alcohol, these factors may have contributed more to his heart attack than genetics. However, you cannot rule out a genetic influence as well. Also, if anyone in your family has died from heart disease at an early age, you may be at increased risk for premature heart disease as well. Finally, if a family member has died due to an aneurysm, either in the brain or the chest/abdomen, you should also be screened. Increased risk for aneurysms can also be inherited.
Try to find out the age at which your relatives developed certain conditions. If your grandmother developed diabetes in her 70’s, it may not be a very strong genetic risk factor. If she developed diabetes in her 20’s or 30’s, you may be at a higher risk of inheriting the gene. The general rule is that the younger a person is when they develop a disease; the more likely it is to have a genetic or hereditary component.
For women, at what age did your mother or grandmother go through menopause? Most women will become menopausal around the same age as her mother. Remember, menopause is one of our strongest risk factors for heart disease. If you have an idea as to when you may go through menopause, you can try to get all of your controllable risk factors at goal levels before this occurs.
Make sure you investigate all diseases….from A to Z….Addison’s disease, Alzheimer’s, thyroid disease, etc. (not too many diseases start with Z, but you get the point). Be thorough and put the information in a computer program or make a chart. Share this information with your healthcare provider, your children and your family. There is a lot you can learn by investigating your family’s health history and many diseases are preventable by making healthy lifestyle choices. So what are you waiting for? Get moving, learn about your family’s history and make some lifesaving changes.