How to Learn Your Family's Health History and Why It Matters

Patient Expert
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I wasn't supposed to live. My mom told me that Oma (my Dutch grand-mother), was advised to prepare herself, as I wasn't going to make it. In addition to being early by a month, the umbilical cord was wrapped twice around my neck. My first month was spent in an incubator. Those first two years included many trips to the hospital; it couldn't have been easy for my family.

Marianna as a baby
Marianna Paulson as a baby, with her mother.

Credit: Courtesy of Marianna Paulson

Almost two decades ago, I contacted the hospital to see about getting some hospital records for myself and also those of my parents and grandparents. Unfortunately, they were no longer available. That information is lost for good. My sister and I tried to cobble together what we remember about our parents' and grand-parents' health histories, but they are as incomplete as is their personal histories. We have some details but not enough to satisfy our curiosity, nor to give a clear picture of the health of our family.

I know that my dad was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). My paternal grandmother (Baba, to me), had psoriatic arthritis and possibly also RA. Members of both sides of the family had strokes. My mother died from ovarian cancer.

Marianna with her father
Marianna Paulson at a young age with her father.

Credit: Courtesy of Marianna Paulson

With that kind of history, you'd think I'd be terrified of what could lie in wait for me. I was certain that I would succumb to whatever medical conditions were found in my family's health history book. That is no longer true for me. I'm aware of the skeletons that lie in the closet of my family's health history, but with new information, wisdom that comes with age, and an understanding of the trauma and lifestyle that my family members led, I'm choosing to live better.

Two things help to mitigate that uncertainty I had. I regularly practice stress-relief techniques, which help to keep away fear and help me live in the moment. I also learned about epigenetics. The theory of epigenetics states that while you may be in possession of genes for a certain medical condition, it does not necessarily mean that you will go on to develop that condition. Many factors, especially lifestyle, affect how a genetic predisposition expresses itself, or doesn't express itself. An article that appeared on the CBC Health site states that your children may inherit genes that have “molecular scars,” as a result of your lifestyle choices. Therefore, it's important to avoid making your family health history a self-fulfilling prophecy. But you can't do that unless you have a good understanding of what those lifestyle factors include. Hence, the argument to gather as much information as you can about your family health history.

RA, for example, is chronic illness characterized by inflammation. It not only affects your joints, but also your heart, and as I've learned by watching the Broken Brain series, your cognitive processes, as well. Inflammation can play a role in the development of other serious medical conditions.

In order to determine how you are doing, and the type of medications you need, your doctor will probably include a C-reactive protein test (CRP) as part of your regular blood work. CRP measures inflammation. A family history of conditions that are inflammatory (aren't they all?) in nature can further complicate your diagnosis, so it's important to share this information with your healthcare team. In the meantime, take this inflammation IQ test to learn what you can do to make positive changes that can influence your health, and that of your children.

I hope that you'll learn from my mistake. Sit down and have conversations with older generations and obtain as complete a picture of your family health history as possible. Record it. It's not always easy to get started, but once you do, you may find that the quality of your conversations improves. As a byproduct, you might find that your relationship with the person you're interviewing also improves.

Conversation motivators

Take time during family gatherings and informal get-togethers to fill in the blanks about your family. As historians, older family members can feel valued for the treasure trove of information they possess, not only about the cultural aspects of the family, but also about health history.

Marianna's birthday party
Marianna Paulson’s third birthday party with her family.

Credit: Courtesy of Marianna Paulson

When you flip through a relative's photo album or look at the pictures on their mantle, you have keys that can open up a discussion about the health history of your family members. The answers to these questions can then be shared with your doctors and other family members.

Imagine that you are producing a documentary about the life of your relative. What were they like? Get as much information as you can about their lifestyle. For instance:

  • Did they have any hobbies, skills or aptitudes that you see in me?

  • How was their health? Did they have any medical conditions, particularly ones that have a genetic component such as Alzheimer's and dementia, asthma, auto-immune conditions, birth defects, cancer (breast, colon, lung, prostate, ovarian, others), depression, diabetes, heart disease or sudden heart attack, Huntington's disease, stroke, or blood clots?

  • How did they eat and sleep?

  • Did they exercise?

  • What type of work did they do?

  • Did they face any trauma?

  • Did they have any addictions.

Be gentle and have a box of tissues at hand; some of these topics are delicate and difficult to discuss.

Marianna and her grandmother
Marianna Paulson with her Baba (Grandmother) at the hospital.

Credit: Courtesy of Marianna Paulson

Remember to look forward, too!

You are a part of your family health history. What can you do to minimize the impact you have on your children, your grandchildren, and those who come after them? Make better choices in order to live better.

Of course, there's an app for that!

A Google search revealed a number of apps that you can use to keep track of your family health history. If you do decide to use one of them, do your due diligence. Who has access to this information? How is it being used? What are the implications for future health insurance claims?

On the surgeon general's Family Health History Initiative you'll find a number of resources and tools to help you gather your family health history.

While you are busy gathering your genealogical information, be sure to include your family health history, as well. If there is information that points to a serious health concern, control what you can. Transform your stress. Eat well. Ensure you get enough sleep. Make exercise a part of your life. Build connections. Allow your family health history to illuminate the path to better life choices.