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By LYNDA SHRAGER, Special to the Times Union
First published: Tuesday, November 25, 2008 As Thanksgiving is upon us, I am thankful for your readership and the comments, e-mails, and ideas that have come from across the country since this column began three years ago.
How fitting to share my "anniversary" with the fifth National Family History Day this Thanksgiving. Because most families gather on this day, the U.S. surgeon general urges you to talk about your health history.
Knowing what runs in the family can highlight patterns and trends that may be useful in diagnosing medical conditions, determining appropriate tests and creating treatment plans that include preventive measures you can take to lower your risk of getting a particular disease.
Because the family health history is such a powerful screening tool, the surgeon general has recently revised the Web-based tool called "My Family Health Portrait". It is now compatible with most computers. So, while Uncle Steven is carving the bird, gather as many generations of blood relatives as possible, including parents, grandparents, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, children and grandchildren. It is time to play "what killed Nana Lil?"
When compiling information, be specific. Exactly what type of cancer did Nana Joan die from? My breast cancer was diagnosed when I was 36, which makes it much more significant for my children than if I were post-menopausal.
Ask those gathered if they remember what medical conditions the deceased relatives had and the ages of death. If someone who was otherwise healthy dies suddenly from something other than an accident or trauma, this could be a red flag.
Common diseases and conditions linked to heredity include some cancers, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, arthritis, thyroid disorders, inflammatory bowel disease, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and polycystic kidney disease.
Eye diseases including glaucoma and cataracts, and hearing loss may also have genetic components.
Also consider psychiatric illnesses such as depression and schizophrenia.
In the absence of living relatives, obtain information from death certificates generally on file in governmental offices in the municipality where they died. Other potential sources include letters, diaries, military records, obituaries and funeral home papers.
If you are adopted, the National Foster Care & Adoption Directory Search (http://www.childwelfare.gov/nfcad/) can provide information on locating birth parents and accessing health information.
The American College of Medical Genetics recommends starting the dialogue with the following questions (I recommend starting the dialogue with a large bottle of wine): What health problems run in our family? Has anyone had cancer, heart disease or other significant health problems at an early age (between 20-50)? Did anyone have mental retardation, learning problems or have to go to a special school? Have there been early deaths, stillbirths, or multiple miscarriages? Have any relatives had extreme, unexpected reactions to medications or therapy?
Organize all your data and create a precious gift to pass on to generations to come:
Go to http://www.familyhistory.hhs.gov/ to access the tool. The finished document will create a graphical representation of health disorders that may move to the next generation.
Share the collected information with your health provider at your next checkup.
Review and update periodically to optimize its use in disease prevention.
Keep this information personal and confidential.
If a medical condition is prevalent, consider consulting a professional specializing in genetics to further interpret the data and help you decide on the next step to take.This column should not be substituted for medical advice. It is recommended that you talk with your doctor when making medical decisions. Lynda G. Shrager is an occupational therapist, author and professional health organizing consultant from Slingerlands. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.