Your family's health history holds critical clues.
May 15, 2000 -- Mary Smith hadn't noticed the mass growing in her abdomen
until her gynecologist discovered it during an exam. Unfortunately, Smith had
missed several annual checkups, and her uterine fibroid had grown to a size
that required surgery instead of other, less-invasive, treatment. When Smith
called her mother in the Midwest to tell her about the surgery, she learned --
for the first time -- that her mother had had a similar experience when she was
about the same age.
"If I had known about my family earlier, I would have gotten my checkups
more often," says Smith. "And they might have found the fibroid sooner,
while it was still small."
She could deal with constantly forgetting her shopping list, and she'd made
a habit of writing down where she'd parked her car, each and every time. But in
her mid-50s, Janis Mara's memory problems started costing her money. Late fees
began piling up because she forgot to pay her bills.
"Over time, it really intensified," she says. "I wanted to think
I was just getting older, but my fear was that it was Alzheimer's."
After bugging her HMO for an MRI, Mara discovered that her lapses weren't
The diagnosis left Smith convinced that finding out about her family's
medical history might be a good idea. She was fortunate that her mother was
alive and lucid, and available to fill her in before it was too late.
Inherited Health Problems
Not everyone is so lucky. "Comedian Gilda Radner died of ovarian cancer
in 1989. Unfortunately for Radner, she did not know until very late in the game
that she had a strong family history of ovarian cancer," says Joan Kirchman
Mitchell, chair of the National Genealogical Society's Committee on Family
"Her aunt, a first cousin, and a grandmother suffered from the same
disease. In the population at large, a female's risk of ovarian cancer is
around 1 in 70. Gilda's family health history changed her risk to around 1 in
2, or 50% -- a pretty dramatic change in the odds." Had Radner known about
her greatly increased risk of cancer, says Mitchell, she might have sought
Since Radner's death, researchers at the Gilda Radner Familial Ovarian
Cancer Registry have determined that women with strong family histories of
ovarian cancer develop the cancer at a younger age than the general population
and that it occurs at progressively earlier ages in successive
Other researchers have established that individuals having a family history
of stroke or certain cardiac conditions are also more like to have these
problems themselves. Genealogists, genetic specialists, and health care
professionals all agree that knowing one's family health history is important
for early identification and treatment or prevention of inherited disorders --
from cancer and heart disease to depression and other types of mental illness.
You can also use a medical history to find out about your predisposition to a
wide variety of other diseases.
There are some illnesses -- arthritis or Alzheimer's disease, for instance
-- which may not currently lend themselves to either early detection or
prevention. But in most cases, say researchers, the more you know about your
family's health history, the better. And what if you do discover a serious
condition that appears to run in your family? Don't panic, to start. Most
family-related health problems are caused by a combination of factors, and you
may not automatically have the same health problems experienced by several
close family members.