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Family health history 3


Have you signed your donor card?
Barbara J. Nolan, recruiter for the American Red Cross Marrow Donor Program in Northern Ohio offers an interesting suggestion. She points out that fatal blood diseases such as leukemia and aplastic anemia do not discriminate and affect the whole family. Nolan suggests including a Marrow Donor Recruitment Drive at your next family reunion to raise awareness and educate your family about the need for more marrow donors of all races. Commitment to become a potential marrow donor is stronger among those who are educated within the family group. Your own marrow donors can lessen the devastating situation a family faces when relying on the kindness of strangers to save the life of a loved one. Your Marrow Donor Drive can increase the number of potential marrow donors in the National Marrow Donor Program Registry. Call Barbara Nolan, 888-862-7769 (toll free).

Good for your family health

by Erika Dreifus, PhD
   Learning about your family's past can be good for your health. You may want to incorporate family health history activities into your next reunion.

   Knowing your family health history - medical information about yourself and close blood relatives -can be valuable in many ways. Such history can help identify your own risk factors for heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, and other health problems. Health care providers can consider the information, along with your own environment and behavior patterns, to assess your risk of disease. You may choose to have tests such as mammograms or colorectal cancer screenings to assist in early detection, or reduce your risk by modifying eating or exercise habits.
Even the youngest family members have something to gain. When my cousin's newborn son was screened and diagnosed with a rare Fatty Oxidation Disorder (FOD), several close relatives had screenings. Early screening matters; this heritable disorder is serious but treatable.

   Recognizing how important such collective information can be, US Surgeon General, Richard H. Carmona, M.D., M.P.H., and agencies within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have launched a "Family History Initiative." It features a free software tool available from . My Family Health Portrait helps collect and organize information about family members and diseases they may have suffered. Contents can then be printed out for presentation to the family doctor.

   The Surgeon General's website takes pains (no pun intended) to highlight privacy/security issues. My Family Health Portrait stores information only on your computer. How safe the information is depends on how well you protect your computer.
   A reunion is an opportune moment for families to share information. (For the past two years, Surgeon General Carmona has declared Thanksgiving to be National Family History Day, but the Surgeon General encourages families to talk about and record health histories whenever they gather). So reunion planners may be particularly interested in including Family Health History activities. Talking with relatives, asking questions and recording information are all starting points. More experienced researchers might review death certificates and family medical records to confirm information or collect more.

   However you go about it, consider adding health history research to your family reunion activities. It's good for you - and for everyone in your family.

Software details
   My Family Health Portrait is compatible with most browsers and operating systems. For those who prefer other versions, both a downloadable and hard copy paper option (in English and Spanish) are available. To order copies by phone, call 1-888-Ask HRSA (275-4772) and ask for "My Family Health Portrait" in English (inventory # HRS00360) or Spanish (inventory # HRS00361). See for more information.

About the author
Erika Dreifus holds a PhD in History from Harvard University and writes frequently on family history topics. Visit her website at

Outside agencies and organizations assist Spaulding Family Reunion health fairs.  

The Utah Department of Health Chronic Disease Genomics Program offers Family Reunion Packets to help you collect family health history at your next reunion. You can access the packet as a pdf here. You may also order a packet at 888-222-2542 or

10 questions to ask your family

The Utah Department of Health Chronic Disease Genomics Program suggests these questions to help develop your family health history.

  1. What traits seem to run in our family? 
    You don’t have to ask only about health – start with anything from your family’s blue  eyes or curly hair to your height and personality – just get your family talking.
  2. Did my family members have any health problems?
  3. How old were my family members when their health problem started or was diagnosed?
  4. How old were my family members when they died?
      If you don’t know exact dates, ask about the approximate age at death.
  5. What were the reasons they died?
    Note if the cause of death was unknown.
  6. Were there any pregnancy losses or babies born with birth defects? 
  7. Where were my family members born?
       Ethnicity can be a risk factor for some health problems.
  8. Did any of my family members smoke?
       If yes, how much and for how long?
  9. What other lifestyle habits did my family members have?
    For example: Did they exercise regularly?  Were any overweight or extremely thin?   Did any have addictive behaviors?
  10. What types of allergies did my family members have? For example: hay fever, food or medication allergies.

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