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Wednesday November 20, 2019

Savvy Living

Savvy Senior

How to Create a Family Health Portrait

How do I go about making a family health history? Most of my relatives have died before age 65. My doctor suggested I create a family history to help identify my own genetic vulnerabilities.

An accurate family health history remains one of the most important tools to maintain your health as you age. The holidays may be an opportune time to discuss a family health portrait. Here are some things you should know, along with some tips and tools to help you create one.

Know Your Genes


Just as you can inherit your father's height or your mother's eye color, you can also inherit their genetic risk for diseases, such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease. For example, if one generation of a family has high blood pressure, it is not unusual for the next generation to also have high blood pressure. Tracing the health ailments suffered by your relatives can help you and your doctor predict things you may be at risk for, so you can take action to keep yourself healthy.

To create a family health history, you will need to start by collecting some basic medical information on your first-degree relatives, which includes your parents, siblings and children. You may also want to include your grandparents, aunts, uncles and first cousins.

You should find out the specific ages of when a relative developed health problems, such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, arthritis, dementia, depression, etc. If family members are deceased, you should try to find out when and how they died. If possible, include lifestyle information as well, such as diet, exercise, smoking and alcohol use.

Some relatives may not want to share their medical history or they may not know their family history. Typically, any information you discover will be helpful for creating a family health portrait.

You may be able to get information on deceased relatives by ordering a copy of their death certificate. The certificate will list their cause of death and their age at death. To get a death certificate, contact the vital records office in the state where your relative died, or go to VitalChek.com.

If you were adopted, the National Foster Care & Adoption Directory Search, ChildWelfare.gov/nfcad, may be able to help you locate your biological parents so you can get their medical history.

Helpful Tools


To get help putting together your family health history, the U.S. Surgeon General created a free web-based tool called "My Family Health Portrait," which can be accessed at phgkb.cdc.gov/FHH/html. The tool can help you collect, organize and understand your genetic risks. You may choose to share the information with your family members and doctors.

Another free resource that provides similar assistance can be found on the Genetic Alliance's website, FamilyHealthHistory.org. The online tool entitled "Does it run in the family?" allows you to create a customized guide of your family health history.

Handling the Results


If you uncover serious health risks that run in your family, do not despair. While you cannot change your genes, you can change your habits to increase your chances of a healthy future. By eating a healthy diet, exercising and not smoking, you can offset and sometimes even neutralize your genetic vulnerabilities. This is especially true for heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis.

A family medical history can also alert you to get early and frequent screening tests. This can help detect other problems, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and cancers including breast, ovarian, skin, prostate and colon cancer, in their early stages when they are most treatable.

Savvy Living is written by Jim Miller, a regular contributor to the NBC Today Show and author of "The Savvy Living" book. Any links in this article are offered as a service and there is no endorsement of any product. These articles are offered as a helpful and informative service to our friends and may not always reflect this organization's official position on some topics. Jim invites you to send your senior questions to: Savvy Living, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070.


Published November 15, 2019
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