Do your relatives know the facts about your personal medical history? What about your family history and their risk for disease?

A recent survey found that 96 percent of Americans believe it’s important to know their family medical history, yet only a third actually gather specifics, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

This has public health officials concerned, as several diseases, such as diabetes, cancer and depression, have been known to run in families.

For example, while one in six American men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer in his lifetime, that figure jumps to one in three for men with a family history of the disease, according to the Prostate Cancer Foundation (PCF). And women with a family history of breast cancer have a fourfold greater chance of developing it than average women, even if they don’t have the genes associated with increased risk of it, according to research by the University of Toronto.

“Knowing your family history can save your life, since survival rates are highest when cancer is caught early,” says Dan Zenka, senior vice president of communications at PCF. “This simple knowledge gives doctors vital insight when it comes to patient assessment and care.”

However, gathering a family history can be difficult. Even when doctors try to collect such patient data, most patients do not know the details. That is why it is important older relatives share their medical histories with younger generations.

PCF recommends collecting family medical histories at family reunions and holidays. Some thoughtful strategies can help ease your relatives into an open conversation about health:

• Share your purpose. Explain that you’re creating a record the whole family can use to receive better health care.

• Provide multiple choices. Some people may be more willing to share health information in face-to-face conversations, others by phone or e-mail. Let them choose.

• Speak less, listen more. Keep your questions short and neutral. Medical diseases are not moral failings, but feeling judged is likely to get your relatives to clam up. So listen without comment.

• Respect privacy. Just because this information is to be shared, there’s no need to make Uncle Jim’s prostate problems the focus of discussion at the next family barbeque.

You can keep your family medical history current by using free Web services such as the government’s Family Health Portrait Tool, available at After information is collected about grandparents, parents, siblings, children, aunts, uncles and cousins, it organizes it into a diagram for health care professionals to better individualize diagnosis, treatment and prevention plans.

To find out more about how your family history can affect your risk for diseases such as prostate cancer, visit

Then take the opportunity to collect a family history the next time your family is together. It might just save a life.

Courtesy of State Point

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