By Melanie Ayotte, Boomerang staff writer
Just about any resource on long-term care planning will tell you that you need to anticipate what your health needs will be in the future. Unfortunately, none of us knows exactly how aging will affect us. Many of us look at our parents' health as a barometer of our own futures, but this is only part of the story. Luckily, just as a family tree can show you where you came from, a "medical family tree" can show you where you might be heading.
A medical family tree is simply a list of family members' health conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, etc. It includes ages and deaths over generations and should include other topics family members typically avoid talking about, such as depression and addictions. A medical family tree can help you identify conditions for which you may be at risk and allow you to plan to prevent or effectively treat them, should they happen to you.
Advocates for the medical family tree approach recommend yours include information from at least three generations. As you begin to collect the information, you may see patterns evolve. For example, while you know your father had colon cancer, you didn't know that his cousin and uncle also had it. Having this information allows you to discuss possible testing and diet changes with your health care provider. Lifestyle changes, including diet, exercise and even employment changes may lessen, delay or eliminate your risk of a family medical condition.
Collecting information for a medical family tree may not be easy. Many family members do not like discussing their health conditions. When they do, they may feel that some conditions or events are too insignificant to mention (such as a polyp or two removed from their colon years ago) and omit them, giving you an incomplete picture. Another hurdle will be trying to collect health information from those older than you. Technology and medical knowledge is constantly changing and may not have been as precise and detailed 50 years ago as it is today. In addition, reporting was less detailed in the past, as well. For example, diagnoses of many diseases were not listed on death certificates, or they were very broad and encompassed several different conditions.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Surgeon General's Office offers My Family Health Portrait, a free, online tool that helps you enter your family health history, work on it collaboratively, and save or print it for easy access.
Once you have compiled the information, don't keep it to yourself. Share it with family members so they too can map out a healthier future and plan for what may await them. They will also be able to expand upon your tree as they gather more information, and, in turn, share it with other relatives. You also may want to give your information to your health care provider. She will be able to work with you on changes, even minor ones, along with screenings that may change your future health.
Don't just accept what fate or your genes have in store for you; take control of your future by knowing your past. As a result, you can live a healthier life, both physically and financially.
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