In recent years, curiosity about family history has peaked, with many people turning to online databases for insight into missing pieces from their family tree, giving them access to a plethora of information. information about their health. And while some have just learned why they don’t like cilantro, for example, others have used these sources of information to better understand more serious aspects of their health.
As we continue to learn more about how our the physical environment has an impact on our health and quality of life, we also need to remember the important role family history and genetics play in our overall health and in preventing possible disease. The light at National Family Health History Day to Thursday, and as people gather around the table this Thanksgiving and the holiday season, we urge every American to have open conversations about family health history and to encourage loved ones – especially aging loved ones – to shed light both on their own past medical problems and on the medical histories of parents who preceded them.
It won’t be a perfect exercise; very few people will be able to get a detailed family medical history of each biological parent, and many families who come together for the holidays will not have a biological connection. Either way, starting these conversations about what is known and what is not known about a family’s medical history can be important for generations to come.
While these discussions are meant to help family members of all ages, here are three critical times when the above information is critical.
When seeking routine care and preventive screening
Routine care is essential for achieving your best overall health. Knowing what to focus on from an early age can help you anticipate potential health risks like high blood pressure, cancer, diabetes, and more. Ways to reduce these risks may include monitoring stress levels and focusing on lifestyle issues like nutrition, sleep, and exercise. Another strategy is to be proactive in terms of preventive care, such as annual physical exams and regular cancer screenings and the like. Practicing preventative care throughout our lives not only helps us avoid disease, but can also help us live better with chronic diseases in the future.
In addition to lifestyle and environmental factors, genetics can be a key contributor to the disease. That’s why it’s important to ask questions about family health history from both maternal and paternal sides to understand how genetic factors can influence your risk for chronic disease. The disease profile in families, age of early onset and other factors may suggest a risk of inherited disease. Knowing this information can help you better manage or potentially prevent such a disease.
Take, for example, a common family disease: cancer. By knowing your family history of cancer, you can help your health care providers change the types and intervals of preventive screenings you receive, increasing the chances of early detection and successful treatment.
When it comes to health goals or concerns about pregnancy, family planning and infertility, family history and genetic information play a crucial role.
Women in particular face unique health challenges and opportunities at every stage of their health journey – from menstruation, contraception, childbearing years, postpartum, menopause and old age. Knowing what your grandmothers, mothers, sisters, aunts, and other key women in your family went through every step of the way is invaluable in helping you better understand what to expect on your own health journey. Additionally, the medical history of male relatives can provide information about potential health risks and preventative health measures you can take.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, if you have a family history of birth defects, intellectual disability, newborn screening disorder, or genetic disease, your baby may also be more likely to have this disease. Access to family history provides an opportunity to present new information that can guide your care. A genetic counselor can also be an important resource to help answer any questions you may have about your family history.
When choosing a health plan
For those of us fortunate enough to have access to such information, our family medical history can provide powerful information about any predispositions or health risks that might arise and help determine a preventive care routine. targeted. This information can be especially relevant as you get older and look for a health plan that will support your health while on a fixed budget.
An added benefit of taking advantage of the holiday season to have important conversations about family health is that this time of year overlaps with the Annual Medicare Enrollment Period (October 15 to December 7), when seniors have the opportunity to choose a health insurance plan tailored to their unique health needs. Knowing that your loved ones have had cancer or heart disease, for example, can help you or your aging loved one plan for the cost of regular screenings and strategically choose a plan that offers suitable preventive care and management programs. under these conditions. In particular, through a Aetna Medicare Advantage Plan, members have access at no additional cost to an annual in-home assessment that includes a comprehensive health risk assessment and a non-invasive physical examination.
This same thinking applies to more everyday health needs. For example, if you think you might have vision or hearing problems as you get older, you may want to consider a Medicare Advantage plan, which can provide routine benefits for vision, hearing, and even dental care, including plus the services covered by Original health insurance. Knowing what types of prescription drugs you might need and making sure your plan covers those drugs can also save you big money in the future.
Create a family health story
No matter where you are in life, these conversations matter. While it is very important to talk to your closest relatives, such as your parents and siblings, a comprehensive family health history spans three generations on both sides of your family and includes half siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents. You can start with the questions below to get a clear picture of your family medical history tree:
- How old are you?
- What countries did your family come from?
- Do you or someone in your family have heart disease or a related condition like high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or have you had a stroke?
- Do you or anyone in your family have diabetes?
- Do you or anyone in your family have kidney disease, weak bones (osteoporosis), asthma or any other lung disorder?
- Do you or anyone in your family have cancer, especially breast, ovarian or colorectal cancer?
- Are there any pregnancy-related issues in your family, such as babies born with developmental delays or birth defects, or stillbirths or miscarriages?
- Do you or anyone in your family have any other hereditary, genetic or medical problems?
- How old were you / they when the medical condition was diagnosed?
- What treatment have you / they received for this disease?
- How old was (family member) when they died and what was the cause?
Armed with this information, we can make sure that we are taking action today to achieve our best health tomorrow. Need more help getting the ball rolling? Tools like My Heath Family Portrait can help you keep important family health information in one place.
(Editor’s Note: US News is working with the Aetna Foundation and CVS Health to produce the Healthiest Communities section.)