AMARILLO When preparing for your family’s future, don’t forget its past.
A family medical history can be just as valuable to coming generations as a financial legacy, said an expert with Texas Cooperative Extension.
Andrew B. Crocker of Amarillo, Extension program specialist in gerontology and health, said older adults aren’t the beneficiaries of medical histories, but their children and grandchildren are.
“If you’re 65 or 70 years old, you know what’s wrong with you,” he said. “A family medical history is something older people do for upcoming generations. It’s more important for younger people.”
That’s because knowing what kind of medical conditions run in the family makes preventing or controlling them easier, Crocker said.
“Knowing your family (medical) history gives you a better chance to control the risk factors,” he said. For example, if a 20-year-old knows high blood pressure runs in his family, he can take steps through diet, exercise and medical checkups to lower his own risk of developing the condition.
Some of these hereditary conditions of concern are cancer, heart disease and stroke, high cholesterol, dementia, eye disorders including glaucoma and cataracts, depression, Down’s syndrome, infertility and miscarriage, migraines and some forms of learning disorders.
“Finding these conditions in your family’s medical history doesn’t mean you’re going to get them,” Crocker said. “It just means the tendency runs in your family, and you need to watch a little more for them. If you know, you can be on guard.”
Crocker’s advice for an older person who wants to start compiling a family medical history is: Start with your own memories. Did your father have migraines? Did your mother or aunt or grandmother have breast cancer? Did a grandparent die of heart disease?
Then look to your own medical records. “Your health care provider can request your medical records from others (you saw in the past),” Crocker said. “Physicians’ offices regularly purge old medical records; however, hospitals keep records for a much longer period, depending on the institution’s policy.”
Death certificates are also helpful when determining if an ancestor died of a hereditary cause, he said.
“Death certificates will be on file with the state health department,” Crocker said. “You should be able to get a copy, maybe for a small fee.”
Obituaries published in newspapers also might list cause of death, he added.
Go back as far through the generations as you can but remember medical terms have changed through the years and their meanings might not be entirely clear, he said.
“Look for hereditary health issues,” Crocker said, keeping in mind that infectious diseases such as tuberculosis (formerly known as consumption), polio and influenza are not passed down through the generations.
People who were adopted and don’t know their biological family’s identity might be able to get medical information from the Texas Department of Human Services, Crocker said.
But because adoptions in the past were more likely to be closed than open, that information might not be easy to find.
“There should be some kind of paper trail, but that’s not always the case,” he said.
Obtaining medical records of living relatives might be difficult too, he added.
“Because of the health information privacy movement, you may have to have signed consent if you want to get their records released,” Crocker said. “You’ll be able to get your own records, and you’ll be able to get (relatives’) death certificates because they are public record.”
Once the family medical history is compiled and given to younger relatives, they should take that information with them when they next visit their own health care providers, Crocker said. “He or she will take the information into consideration during your checkups.”
For more information on starting and maintaining a family medical history, visit Extension’s Family and Consumer Sciences Web site at http://fcs.tamu.edu/health/index.htm and click on the link to child health.