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Talk turkey and family health history this Thanksgiving


Omar Wani, M.D.

Relatives enjoy connecting over the holidays and gathering around the table for holiday dinners. This connection follows us, especially when it comes to our health. Like our blue eyes, our parents and grandparents can pass on the likelihood for disease. These include birth defects, diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, stroke or cardiovascular problems as well as more sensitive issues like mental illness and learning disabilities. But discovering our family health histories allows us to take action and watch for signs of trouble.

Family gatherings are the perfect place to gently ask aunts, uncles and other members for a snapshot of their health. A conversation might uncover information that was buried simply because no one thought to ask. A U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study found that 96-percent of people think that knowing their family health history is important, but less than a third of them actually know their family history.

Learning about your family’s health is the first step to guarding it. A complete medical record alerts a physician to possible problems and helps them strategize for your best care. The ability to trace illness can steer a physician to a specific test or to develop a plan to delay or avoid disease.

A person’s health history search should cover three generations on both sides of the family. As you talk, take notes and pose questions. For example, if granddad suffered a heart attack, ask if he had surgery and whether there were other factors such as high blood pressure. Afterward, use all the information to create your family medical tree with a Web tool at familyhistory.hhs.gov. Here the data can be saved, shared and sent electronically to relatives and physicians.

But how do you know if an illness or condition is significant? Apply the 3-2-1 Rule. If you can answer “yes” to any of the following situations for blood relatives affected by a particular disease, you are at risk:

3 members on the same side of the family or,
2 closely linked members (like siblings or parent and child) or,
1 member affected at a young age (such as under 50 for heart disease).

Note this on your health record and follow up.

Patrick Burns, a 41-year old fit and able fireman, did not uncover his family history. A heart attack filled in the blanks—both his father and grandfather suffered from heart disease and early death. Those risk factors indicated an extensive heart screening was in order. The information might have saved Burns from his emergency ambulance ride to Flagstaff Medical Center and subsequent stents in his heart. Now, he advocates gathering family histories and using the information to make better choices.

As you begin these conversations, explain your desire to learn more in order to care for everyone’s health. If you can’t have a face-to-face chat, call or send an email. This also allows you to explore a situation more carefully or privately. The purpose is to fill in your family medical tree from root to tip. Then, pass on the information. Like real trees, this one keeps growing, so add new facts as people age. These details might save your life or the life of someone you love.

Omar Wani, M.D., interventional cardiologist, is a physician at the Heart & Vascular Center of Northern Arizona. Dr. Wani specializes in all aspects of interventional cardiac and vascular medicine.

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