Ben Sutherly for the Columbus Dispatch– 31 January 2016
When relatives gather, politics and religion are notorious no-nos. So when the next holiday rolls around, you might have better luck broaching the topic of your family’s health history.
It’s widely known that genetics play a role in diseases such as cancer and a range of cardiovascular disorders. But experts say that a familiarity with previous generations’ ills can help inform the care that people seek as they age, not to mention the preventative steps they take to safeguard their well-being.
If memory problems run in the family, for example, doctors should know. Dementia, while more prevalent among older people, is not a normal part of aging, said Dr. Meredith Mucha, a geriatrician at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center.
“Information is power,” Mucha said. Documenting the health history of your family “allows us to be aware of things that you wouldn’t know otherwise to be aware of.”
It’s typical for doctors, of course, to compile comprehensive health histories of their patients, including pertinent information about family members. But doing your homework ahead of time can be a big help.
Such information often gives doctors insight and context for a patient’s health. If a patient’s parents had gout, for example, certain diuretics or blood-pressure medications might be bypassed to reduce the risk of side effects in the patient, said Dr. Greg Wise, a family medicine doctor in Groveport and the chief medical officer and medical director of MediGold, Mount Carmel Health System’s Medicare Advantage health plan.
Family history might help identify a patient’s liver as a culprit in his or her high levels of LDL, or bad, cholesterol. It can even help doctors determine proper drug dosages and how best to screen for aneurysms.
And family histories can help doctors rule out possible reasons for a patient’s health condition. “Sometimes family history helps us in a reverse way,” Wise said.
An awareness of previous generations’ health susceptibilities often is a helpful guide as one ages, but not always. Knowing your family has a history of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, for which there is no cure, might be a source of anxiety instead of empowerment.
Still, many experts say it’s usually better for people to know more than less.
“Human beings in general need to be incentivized to do things,” said Dr. Michael Wasserman, a California-based geriatrician, speaker and member of the American Geriatric Society’s Health in Aging Foundation.
“If you know that you might have a higher risk of developing a problem if you didn’t exercise or follow a diet, you then have a choice.”
Family histories are “a way of making it more personal,” Wasserman said.
Mucha’s mother, Bobbie Mucha, 69, of Westerville, modified her diet because her own mother and grandmother died in their early 70s of heart problems. She’s also careful about drinking because alcoholism runs in her family.
But it was her family’s brush with breast cancer — both Bobbie and her oldest daughter are survivors of the disease — that convinced her to get on the phone and speak with relatives, some of whom she hadn’t talked with for a long time.
“I felt that was the only way I would understand what I should be doing,” she said.
The U.S. surgeon general has had a family history initiative under way for more than a decade. Those wishing to create an online family health history that can be retrieved at a later date can do so at familyhistory.hhs.gov. The web-based tool can tell you whether you’re at greater risk for certain health conditions such as diabetes and colon cancer.
Your parents, siblings and children are most important to include in a health history. Grandparents, uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews, half-brothers and half-sisters should be included, too. It’s important to include not only serious health events such as heart attacks and strokes, but also how old a relative was he or she had a health scare. Even knowing your family’s countries of origin can be pertinent.
“Elderly people see it as a way to educate and inform their children and their children’s children,” Mucha said.