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The Importance of Knowing Your Family Health History

The Importance of Knowing Your Family Health History

graphic of family reading

Genetics tell us so much about ourselves and our ancestors. Besides physical traits like hair and eye color, other characteristics can be passed down from parents to their children. Some of these traits include conditions like arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, osteoporosis, and some cancers.

By knowing which medical conditions your close relatives had, you can learn what you can do to prevent developing the same conditions. Even though your inherited genes cannot be changed, you can make lifestyle changes to help prevent developing the diseases that run in your family. Some of these lifestyle changes include eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, getting routine medical care, and not smoking.

Know Your Family History

The health of your closest relatives, related to you by blood, influences your health the most. When you’re gathering your family health history, include the health history of your:

  • Parents
  • Grandparents
  • Children
  • Siblings
  • Aunts and uncles

Certain factors may increase your risk of disease. These risks include:

  • Certain combinations of diseases within a family
  • Diseases that occur at an earlier-than-expected age
  • A certain disease in more than one relative
  • A disease that doesn’t typically affect a specific gender (such as breast cancer in a male)

Ask questions about your close relatives’ health, such as birth defects, childhood health problems, and chronic diseases. Learn the age and cause of death of these relatives, and ask if there are any common adult diseases—such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and arthritis—that run in your family.

Holiday family gatherings are an excellent opportunity to collect family health histories, but this year, you should avoid large get-togethers to avoid spreading COVID-19. Instead, opt for a virtual gathering using FaceTime or Zoom.

Advance Directives: Your Life, Your Plan

If you become critically ill or seriously injured and cannot communicate, would your loved ones know what’s important to you? By completing an advance directive, you make your wishes known, so your loved ones don’t have to guess what medical options and interventions you want.

An advance directive simply states what medical interventions you would want and which ones you would not want if you’re in an end-stage condition, terminal condition, or a vegetative state. There are two parts to your written advance directive:

  • Living will or healthcare instructions. This part asks you to state what type of care you want to receive if you’re unable to communicate your wishes. These written instructions allow you to say whether you wish to receive any life-sustaining treatment. Life-sustaining treatment is defined as any medical procedure, treatment, or intervention using mechanical or other artificial means to sustain, restore, or replace a vital function. You may also indicate whether you would want to receive a feeding tube or nutrient IV.
  • Healthcare agent / Medical power of attorney. This is a legal document that allows you to name someone you trust as your agent to make healthcare decisions. Your agent must be 18 years or older.

In order for your healthcare instructions and medical power of attorney to be effective in Maryland, both of these documents must be:

  • Voluntarily executed and written
  • Dated and signed by you
  • Witnessed by two adults, one of whom will not financially benefit from your death (your appointed healthcare agent cannot serve as a witness)

For help completing your advance directive, call 240-651-4541 and ask or a social worker or case manager.

Do you have concerns about your family health history? We’re here to help. Schedule an appointment with your primary care physician today to review your family history and determine what steps you can take to prevent conditions that run in the family.