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Does it Run in the Family? How to Create a Family Health Portrait

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Your Family Health Portrait

Have you considered writing an ethical will? An ethical will – also referred to as a legacy letter – can be a valuable complement to your legal will, as well as a wonderful gift to your family or other loved ones, yet most people don’t think to write one. Here’s what you should know along with some tips to help you create one.

Even with all the high-tech medical tests and procedures that are available today, an accurate family health history remains one of the most important tools in keeping ourselves healthy as we age. And with the holidays approaching when family members come together, this is a great time to do it. Here are some tips and tools to help you create one.

Know Your Genes
Just as you can inherit your father’s height or your mother’s eye color, you can also inherit their genetic risk for diseases like cancer, diabetes, heart disease and more. If one generation of a family has high blood pressure, for example, it is not unusual for the next generation to have it too. Therefore, tracing the illnesses suffered by your relatives can help you and your doctor predict the disorders you may be at risk for, so you can take action to keep yourself healthy.

To create a family health history, you’ll need to start by collecting some basic medical information on your first-degree relatives including your parents and siblings. Then move on to your grandparents, aunts, uncles and first cousins.

You need to get the specific ages of when they developed health problems like heart disease, cancer, diabetes, arthritis, dementia, depression, etc. If family members are deceased, you need to know when and how they died. If possible, include lifestyle information as well, such as diet, exercise, smoking and alcohol use.

Some relatives may not want to share their medical histories, or they may not know their family history, but whatever information you discover will be helpful.

To get information on diseased relatives, get a copy of their death certificate. This will list their cause of death and the age he or she died. To get a death certificate, contact the vital records office in the state where your relative died, or go to VitalChek.com.

Helpful Tools

My Family Health Portrait: A tool freom the Surgeon General
To get help putting together your family health history, the U.S. Surgeon General created a free web-based tool called “My Family Health Portrait” (see phgkb.cdc.gov/FHH/html) that can help you collect, organize and understand your genetic risks and even share the information with your family members and doctors.

Another good resource that provides similar assistance is the Genetic Alliance’s online tool called “Does It Run In the Family.” At FamilyHealthHistory.org you can create a customized guide on your family health history for free.

Handling the Results
If you uncover some serious health risks that run in your family, don’t despair. While you can’t change your genes, you can change your habits to increase your chances of a healthy future. By eating a healthy diet, exercising and not smoking, you can offset and sometimes even neutralize your genetic vulnerabilities. This is especially true for heart disease, stroke, type-2 diabetes and osteoporosis.

A family medical history can also alert you to get early and frequent screening tests, which can help detect other problems (high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and cancers like breast, ovarian, prostrate and colon cancer) in their early stages when they’re most treatable.


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