Family History Contributes To Your Health


Last updated 11/23/2020 at 4:49pm

November is a time when we traditionally reflect on gratitude for our many gifts, including the gift of family. As we approach Thanksgiving, which will be celebrated differently from any other time in our memory due to COVID-19, we may be sharing time with family, but not in person this year.

Our familial connections are more than just present-day relationships though. Our family medical history is something we should all be aware of and discuss with our family members and our physicians. In fact, November is also the month we recognize National Family Health History Day, on Nov. 26.

The family members who have the most influence on your own current and future health are your closest relatives, including your parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, and children. Why is their information important? Because it affects your health directly. In addition to genetic similarities, family members often share similar lifestyle habits, such as dietary practices and activity levels. Due to these factors, health conditions appear in families because of a genetic predisposition, shared health habits or a combination of both.

Frequently diagnosed conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and breast, colon and other cancers can appear in multiple generations, while less common but serious conditions like cystic fibrosis and hemophilia are also hereditary. Even allergies run in families, from food allergies to eczema.

Other important information to pursue is whether your family has a history of fertility challenges, pregnancy losses, or birth defects so you can enter into family planning with as much information as possible.

In addition to physical health problems, mental health conditions run in families too, such as the likelihood of suffering from depression, bipolar disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Genetic links to diseases don’t guarantee you will be diagnosed with them, but having this information can help you and your doctor know what to watch out for in terms of health problems, and help to inform any plan that’s formulated to lower your risk for certain diseases through things you can do now.

Your doctor can provide guidance on how to eat to lower your risk for health conditions you may be at higher risk for, as well as other lifestyle habits, like exercise, getting enough rest and managing stress effectively. They may also recommend more frequent screenings or getting screened at an earlier age for certain cancers. For example, if you’re at higher risk for breast cancer because your mother was diagnosed with it, your doctor may recommend getting your first baseline mammogram at an earlier age than is typical for someone with no family history, or getting screened more frequently. Similarly, they will specifically encourage you to refrain from using tobacco products if, for example, conditions like heart disease and high blood pressure run in your family.

We often wish we’d asked questions about our family’s history with relatives who are now gone, and the same is true when it comes to health. Start a conversation with your family members now, and record their answers about the health conditions and causes of death of now-deceased members as well. Ask them about what diagnoses they’ve received and how old they were when they got them.

Another thing to be aware of is your family’s ethnic roots because some health conditions show up in higher numbers among particular ethnic groups. Ashkenazi Jewish women are at higher risk for breast cancer, for example, while sickle cell disease is a condition suffered primarily by African Americans.

I realize that not everyone can easily get information on their health histories, especially if they are adopted. Adoptees can begin by asking their adoptive parents if they have any information on their birth parents, and they can also pursue getting information from the adoption agency their adoptive parents used. Even if you find very little or no information, it’s important to speak with your doctor about this because they can still help you come to decisions on what health screenings are best for you.

As I previously mentioned, the pandemic is affecting every facet of our lives. Before I close, I want to make you aware of our insurance assistance hotline, which offers help for those struggling with being uninsured during the pandemic. Our trained professionals are there to assist those who need help applying for emergency medical coverage, from COBRA insurance to Medicaid. You can contact them Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. at (833) 541-5757.

As always, I remain grateful that our community members continue to come to Transylvania Regional Hospital for their care. I want to remind you to stay safe. COVID-19 continues to be present in our community, and it’s important that we continue to practice social distancing, wearing a mask and washing our hands, all proven ways to slow the spread of the virus.

(Michele Pilon, MS, BSN, RN, NE-BC, is the chief executive officer and chief nursing officer of Transylvania Regional Hospital. Her diverse professional experience includes service as a bedside nurse and over a decade as a leader at health care institutions in Virginia, Florida and North Carolina. Ms. Pilon earned a Bachelor’s in Nursing from Ohio’s University of Akron and a Master’s in Health Services Administration from the University of St. Francis in Illinois; she is also a Board-Certified Nursing Executive.)


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