Many diseases run in families, and you may have inherited a genetic predisposition to a certain disease or disorder if other members of your family—your parents, grandparents, aunts, or uncles—have had them. This means that, if your parents or grandparents had heart disease or cancer, you may have inherited a susceptibility that gives you an increased risk of getting the same disorder. Many common disorders, such as heart disease, colon cancer, diabetes, and alcoholism, have a genetic component.
Just because your parents or grandparents had a certain type of cancer does not necessarily mean that you will also get it, because lifestyle factors play a role. Not smoking, eating a healthful diet, exercising regularly, and drinking alcohol only in moderation can help you control your risk of getting a disease for which you may have inherited a susceptibility. Knowing the disorders that have occurred in your family can help you and your doctor determine your risk.
Ask your relatives about medical conditions they have now and have had in the past. Ask about cancer, heart disease, diabetes, allergies, birth defects, drinking problems, and emotional problems. Try to find out from them the health problems experienced by relatives who have died. You can also contact the health department in the town in which your deceased relatives lived to request a death certificate, which will list the cause of death. Once you have interviewed all of your relatives, use the information you have gathered to construct a family health history tree like the one on the next page. Review the finished family tree carefully to identify any recurring patterns of disease. Pay special attention to disorders that occur at a relatively young age, because early onset of a disorder can signal a strong inherited influence.
During a routine physical examination, your doctor asks you a series of questions to find out your current health status, what medical problems or injuries you have had in the past, and what medical conditions your family members have had. This interview is called the personal health history, and it helps your doctor become familiar with your health status so he or she can better diagnose and treat an illness you may have. Develop your own written personal health history and keep it at home so you can monitor your medications and any changes in your health.
Use the personal health history form (see page 82) to get started. Think carefully about all the details of your medical history, including dates. Write down the names of the doctors who treated you, if they were different from your current doctor. Include your lifestyle habits, too. Have you ever smoked? Do you drink alcohol or use other drugs? How often? Safety issues are important as well. Think about whether you use a seat belt every time you drive and whether you have working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors in your home. List all
Family Health History Tree
1. Make a copy of this form for your partner to complete.
2. Fill in the blank squares with details about your family's health history.
3. Be sure to include the following information: age or age at death cause of death (if applicable) noteworthy lifestyle factors and medical conditions
4. Take this form with you when you visit your doctor and ask him or her to explain your risks for hereditary disease.
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