5 reasons why you should know your family medical history

Calm middle-aged man is visiting doctor in clinic while she takes his blood pressure and learns his medical history.

Image: YacobchukOlena/Bigstock.com

I learned the value of knowing my family medical history about 10 years ago. I’d had a two-day headache that impacted on my peripheral vision. I remember walking from my office along a pathway and almost bumping into people because I couldn’t see them unless they were directly in front of me.

I assumed it was a migraine and, perhaps because I’m male, I forgot about it once it was gone.

My wife didn’t forget. A couple of weeks later during a doctor’s visit, she said: ‘Tell her about your headache.’

Our doctor immediately booked me in for an MRI scan the next day.

The scan showed that I’d had a stroke. Fortunately, it was minor, but serious enough for my doctor to sign up a cardiologist and a neurologist to try to find out why.

It took a couple of months to discover I have atrial fibrillation (AF)—a heart that occasionally beats out of rhythm. The problem with this is: if the heart pauses long enough a clot may form and be sent through the body. The probability is that this is what caused my stroke.

I’ve discovered that AF is quite common and treatment is usually successful. Medication works for me and, thanks for asking, my heart is doing fine. The last time I saw my cardiologist, he told me not to come back for another 18 months.

The family connection? I’ve discovered that AF runs in our family, but nobody has ever talked about it. It’s important, and helpful, to know your family medical history. It may be up to you to start the conversation. You need to know. Here’s why:

1. For your personal awareness

If you’re part of a family where several suffer from a genetic condition, you’ll be aware that there’s a possibility that you could have the same problem. And AF is only one of several conditions that run in families. Others include type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol levels, Huntington’s Disease, and certain cancers.

Your research into your family should be broad, says Joann Boughman, the executive vice president of the American Society of Human Genetics. ‘You want to go back as far as your grandparents, then wide enough to include siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, and nephews. For example, if your father has inherited a condition that causes repeat miscarriage, he may not be aware of it, because obviously he never got pregnant. That’s why you need the broad context.’

2. To help your doctor

Doctors ask about family history seeking clues that can help them understand your health risks. It also helps them know what they should be checking for as you return on your regular visits.

If your doctor is not aware of an issue you have, there’s the possibility of medication being prescribed that could increase the risk of a genetic problem surfacing.

3. To take steps to reduce harm

With your medical professional, you should be able to organise tests and check-ups if you’re at risk in certain areas. For instance, if your family history shows you are at risk of breast or colon cancer, early and regular screenings through mammography and colonoscopy can catch signs of a problem.

Doctors encourage regular check-ups for those whose family history indicates a risk. A problem caught early can usually be dealt with more effectively than one found late when major damage has been done.

4. To help plan lifestyle changes 

Developing and living a healthy lifestyle provides significant benefits. There may be some things you can do to help counter your family health issue. For instance, adopting a healthy diet, regular exercise, and quitting smoking helps many people lower the chance of developing heart disease and other common illnesses.

5. To warn the next generation

One of the first things I did when I discovered that AF was a family issue was to phone my children to alert them to the problem. If nothing else, we have a responsibility to discover the possibilities and to pass on a health history for them.

One more thing

Because my minor stroke had no long-term impact, it was one of the best things that could have happened to me. It alerted me to a problem I have that could have led to devastating health issues or death. With treatment, that risk is now incredibly low.

If you’re close to entering the retirement years, your family health history will help you understand the risks you face—and to develop a health plan for your future.

Bruce Manners: the author of Retirement Ready?, Refusing to Retire, and founder of RetireNotes.com

Category: Ageing, Physical Health

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