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All in the Family—Commentary

12/28/15 Michael R. Wasserman, MD, California Association of Long Term Care Medicine;

It’s the holiday season. This is a time when families come together.  It’s a time for sharing, which makes it a great time to learn about your family’s history, including their health history. Sharing this history is a way to bring families closer together by learning about the challenges that we face.  A family’s health history also can actually save lives by giving people and their doctors insight into things that they need to look out for and prepare for. 

Did Grandma have memory problems? How old was she when they started? Alzheimer’s disease can have a familial component to it. Did Uncle Ned have heart disease?  Did it start before the age of 55? That’s important to know. Did he smoke? As smoking is the greatest predictor of heart disease and lung cancer, it’s useful to know if there were other family members who didn’t partake in smoking who lived long, healthful lives. 

What medications does Grandpa take? How long has he been taking them? Problems like high blood pressure or high cholesterol can come about at a relatively early age. This type of information can be a reminder to go to the doctor for a check-up. While you’re there, the doctor will certainly ask you questions about your family history, so you might as well get as much information in advance as you can. Do you know whether your parents or grandparents had any surgeries? Hospitalizations? There’s a good reason doctors ask such questions.

Was Uncle Jim active as a young adult? Did he run or play sports? What were his hobbies? What were his eating habits? The history and habits of our relatives can truly provide a window into our own futures.  This can be important to us and our children.  The Surgeon General of the United States thinks that a family’s health history is so important that he developed a webpage for it (My Family Health Portrait).

There are other less obvious reasons to inquire about the health history of family members. People with chronic diseases often need assistance at some point in their lives. Certain diseases can limit one’s ability to travel and get out of the house. This knowledge might prompt us to make the time to go visit such a relative.

Give the gift of information this holiday season. Sharing a family’s health history is not only a way of becoming closer, it can also save lives.  

Dr. Wasserman is The Manuals' Editorial Board Reviewer for Older People's Health Issues.