Fighting My Father’s Fate
Can I avoid my family history of hereditary disease?
Worriers like me are also apt to blame a genetic curse when other explanations are equally plausible, Zabel says.
That point hit home. I’ve always assumed that the men of my family harbored a killer in their DNA. But the fact is that my forefathers tended to be plump, hostile to all forms of exercise (excluding historical walking tours), and careless in their diets. My father smoked for more than 15 years. Most of the others had high blood pressure and diabetes. Those controllable risk factors go a long way toward explaining the early deaths of my forefathers. After all this time, I realize, our genes may have gotten a bad rap.
Compiling a Family Medical History
Instead of dwelling on grim thoughts and lethal genes, is there anything people with a family history of hereditary disease should do?
“You start by building a family history,” says Gilbert. Doctors and genetic counselors are now pushing people to make family medical histories. They’re free and they tell you a lot about your risk for disease -- including those for which we don’t have tests.
Try the U.S. Surgeon General’s “My Family Health Portrait” web site: https://familyhistory.hhs.gov/. You can enter confidential health information about your family and then print it out. It’s fun -- sort of. It’s like creating that family tree in grade school, but with diseases.
The goal is to map out your family medical history for three generations or more -- that means you and your siblings, parents, grandparents, and your own children, if you have any. Make sure to note any diseases in the family and, if you know, when they started and how they were treated.
When you sit down to do a family tree, you may be surprised how little you really know about your relatives. Say you go to enter in information about your Uncle Dave. You know the family refrain: Uncle Dave died of cancer. But what sort of cancer? Where did it start? How old was he when he got it? When you ask around, everyone shrugs. After a decade or two, the cause of dear Uncle Dave’s death is as mysterious as that of King Tut’s.
So what’s the health-conscious genealogist to do? If you have medical records to fill the gaps, you’re lucky. If you don’t, it’s just possible you might be able to get a hold of them. Hospitals have different policies on storing records. Some might hang on to them for a just few years; others for a hundred. If you’re not the legal next of kin, you’ll need him or her to request the records. It’s not a sure thing at all, but it works for some people.