Years ago a financial services person told me that the training her company put her through taught that it normally took about a dozen “touches” before a prospective client would finally bite the bullet and write a check for something she was “selling.” That certainly explains the behavior of some insurance agents, salespeople and an occasional distant relative over the years!
It may explain why it’s so important in dealing with my patients to repeat clear and consistent advice over repeated visits to establish lasting, healthy behaviors. It’s also why, although I wrote about this in past columns, I want to renew my encouragement to use family gatherings during the holiday season to learn about your family’s health history.
Whether your family lives near or far, the holiday season is a time to gather, celebrate and share a meal. Regardless of distance and hectic schedules, many family members seem to make getting together a top priority.
So, this holiday season, while you have the family together, amidst catching up and reminiscing about the good old days, take the opportunity to talk about your family health history as well.
You and your family members share genes as well as some similar behaviors, environments and cultures, all of which may impact your risk of developing certain health conditions. Your family health history incorporates all of these factors – being aware of those factors can benefit you and all of your family members.
Common conditions such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, as well as rare diseases such as cystic fibrosis, can run in families. If one generation of your family has a condition such as high blood pressure, it’s not unusual for the next generation to also have high blood pressure.
Tracking the illnesses and conditions of your blood relatives is important to being proactive about preserving your own health.
The most important relatives to include in your family health history are your parents, siblings and your children. From there, you may also want to talk to grandparents, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews and half siblings.
Ask your relatives questions about any diseases or conditions they may have and when they were diagnosed in order to find out about your risk for them.
Ask if they’ve had any chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure or high cholesterol. You should also ask them if they’ve had any other serious diseases such as stroke, heart attack or cancer. Just as importantly, ask how old your relatives were when they were diagnosed with these diseases. Asking about your family’s ancestry and what country you came from can also help you and your health care advisors understand your family health history.
Although it may be difficult, you should also ask about relatives who have passed away – about the cause and age of their passing.
Getting to know your family health history gives you valuable information about the risk of specific health concerns, but having blood relatives with medical conditions doesn’t automatically mean that you will develop the same condition. Similarly, a person with no family history of a condition may still be at risk of developing it.
Understanding your family medical history gives you the opportunity to discuss your risk of diseases and conditions with your doctor as well as to take steps to reduce your risk.
For instance, if you have an increased risk of certain cancers due to your family history, your doctor may recommend starting screenings such as mammograms and colonoscopies sooner and having them more frequently.
Having certain health conditions run in your family may lead your doctor to recommend lifestyle changes to lower your risk as well.
These lifestyle changes are beneficial to you no matter your age or family history – eating a healthy diet, regularly exercising, maintaining a healthy weight and not smoking can improve your overall health and lower your risk of developing a litany of health conditions; but if you have inherited a tendency to develop heart disease, these healthy behaviors may be life-saving.
I just met with a man who’ll have an urgent heart operation this week, before Christmas, and told him that his gift to his two young-adult kids is the knowledge that they now have a family history of heart disease. Seems like a rotten deal, but giving them both a “heads up” now, while they’re young, and healthy, gives them the chance to develop good habits, avoid bad habits and with a little luck, prevent rather than deal with the consequences of heart disease.
Enjoy your holidays sensibly, please.
Merry Christmas and happy Hanukkah.
Dr. Alfred Casale is chairman of surgery for the Geisinger Heart Institute, co-director of the Cardiovascular Service Line for the Geisinger Health System and Associate Chief Medical Officer of the Geisinger Health System and Chair of the Geisinger Heart Institute. Readers may write to him via [email protected]