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Make a family health tree

As families gather for reunions and holiday celebrations, they should consider sharing something more important than Aunt Martha's macaroni salad recipe.

It's important to know your family medical history, and large family gatherings are the best place to gather the details, according to health officials.

"Knowing your family medical history can save your life," said Karen Brooks, a genetic counselor and assistant professor at University of South Carolina School of Medicine.

Cancer, diabetes, heart disease and many other disorders have genetic factors. Knowing if your family has a history of any of these conditions allows you and your physician to take steps to prevent you from becoming part of an unwanted family tradition.

A survey cited by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services noted that 96 percent of Americans believe knowing their family health history is important, but less than a third of Americans have gathered to discuss and write down those histories.

How to get started

Reunions are a great place to start because family elders have a depth of knowledge about medical problems. Brooks suggests checking in with family members before a reunion to let them know you will be asking medical history questions. That way they can do a little research to jog their memories.

Here are some other tips:

• Start with the biggies — major birth defects, cancer, stroke and cardiovascular problems. Discussion of disorders such as mental illness and learning disabilities might be a little touchier, but you should try to delve into those matters, too.

• Look at both sides of your family. If your reunion is almost exclusively members of your mother's side of the family, try to do the same thing at the next get-together of the folks in your father's family. Most diseases can be inherited from either side.

• Start with your immediate family and try to get at least three generations of information. Then build from that nucleus, creating a medical family tree.

• Share the information once it's compiled. If someone in your family isn't interested, they can throw it away. It might be more detailed information than a doctor needs, but too much information is better than too little.

• Don't stop after the initial information is compiled. Family medical histories, like families, grow through the years.

Use the 3-2-1 rule

One instance of a disease might not mean much. Health officials go by the 3-2-1 rule. It's worth special attention if three relatives on the same side of the family have had the same disorder, at least two are closely related (sibling, parent, child) or at least one was affected at a young age (before 50 for most cancers).

"Yes to all three definitely warrants mentioning your family history to your health care provider," Brooks said.

In the past, some families have treated talk of mental illness as taboo or prudishly avoided talk about cancer involving sexual organs. Some of that reluctance has broken down in recent years, Brooks said.

On the Web

My Family Health Portrait is an online tool for compiling health histories. Go to after you've gathered the health information from family members. You can save your data to a secure Internet page or your computer hard drive.

Make a family health tree 09/10/10 [Last modified: Friday, September 10, 2010 4:30am]
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