I had two routine checkups last week, and both the eye doctor and the dentist asked me to update my health history for their records. Their requests made sense. Health-care providers should know what problems their patients have had and what medications they're taking to be on the lookout for potential trouble or complications.
On each history, however, the section labeled FAMILY HEALTH HISTORY gave me pause. Few diseases are purely genetic, but plenty have genetic components. If my father suffered from elevated LDL, or bad cholesterol, my doctor should know that, because I'm probably at higher risk. If my mother had breast cancer, my sister (if I had one) would want her physician to be especially vigilant.
While I know something about the history of my parents' health--my father had prostate cancer at a relatively young age and suffered from macular degeneration and Parkinson's disease, and my mother died of lung cancer--there's plenty I don't know. What were my parents' cholesterol numbers and blood pressures? I assume I would have known if either suffered from diabetes, but I can't swear to that. And when it comes to my grandparents, whose genes I also have, I'm even more in the dark.
That makes me fairly typical. According to Dr. Richard Carmona, the U.S. Surgeon General, only about a third of Americans have even tried to put together a family-health history. That's why he has launched the Family History Initiative and declared Thanksgiving National Family History Day. Sitting around the turkey talking about cancer and heart disease may seem like a grim thing to do when you're supposed to be giving thanks for everything that's going right. But since many families will be gathering for the holiday anyway, it's a perfect time to create a medical family tree.
And the Surgeon General is making it easy: if you go to hhs.gov/familyhistory you can use the Frequently Asked Questions link to find out which diseases tend to run in families, which ones you should be most and least worried about, and what to do if, like me, your parents and grandparents have passed away. You can also download a free piece of software called My Family Health Portrait, which helps you organize the information. The program prints that out in an easy-to-read form you can give to your doctors.
The website insists the software is "fun," but that may be going a bit far. In any case, it's available only for Windows machines, so Mac users and people without computers have to use a printed version of the tree. It's worth it, though, since it could help save your life or the life of your children someday.