Feb 14, 2023, 5:00 am UTC

4 min

Created by

Looking for a deeper way to show you care? Share your family’s medical history

Have you ever been told that you have your mother's eyes or your grandmother's warm smile? You've actually inherited much more from them than meets the eye. Our genes carry information that gets passed from one generation to another. This information not only determines the color of our eyes and hair but also influences our health as we age.      

Breast and ovarian cancer, heart disease and stroke, and mental and neurological conditions like major depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia tend to run in families. That means knowing your family's medical history could be a lifesaver.  

In her bestselling memoir, "An Unquiet Mind," the psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor in mood disorders at Johns Hopkins University, shared her terrifying and life-threatening experience living with bipolar disorder. She was sideswiped at 17 when she had her first manic episode. As she recounts in the memoir, the roots of her illness were there in her family history, especially on her father's side. But no one talked about it — and, as a military pilot, it was out of the question that her father would seek help for his illness from a psychiatrist. He didn't get help and no one talked about his struggles, leaving Redfield Jamison unprepared for her breakdown.  

Canadian opera star Measha Brueggergosman had a similar experience. At the height of her career, the then 31-year-old had emergency surgery to repair a tear in her aorta. It saved her life. Then, 10 years later, she had double bypass surgery to improve blood flow to her heart. This journey with cardiovascular disease led her to become a spokesperson for the Heart & Stroke Foundation and an advocate for research on women's hearts and brains. Like Jamison, the disease ran in her family, but she had no idea she was at risk.   

As Jamison and Brueggergosman's stories make clear, knowledge is power. Your family's health history can act as a blueprint, helping you and your loved ones make sense of their symptoms, advocate for themselves, and manage their treatment.   

That blueprint is especially valuable for women, who may not recognize the symptoms of stroke, bipolar disorder, and many other diseases, given how few resources have been devoted to studying women's bodies. After all, women continue to be under-researched, under-diagnosed, under-treated, under-supported, and under-aware of the risks.  

You can give the gift of your family’s medical history by using these tips:   

Ask lots of questions  

Talk to your family members about their health problems, including symptoms, and what age they were diagnosed. If possible, inquire about your deceased relatives as well.   

Record the information  

Creating a detailed portrait of familial health conditions will not only benefit you, but you can pass this information on to your children or other family members. Tip: Consider writing it down. There's power in handwriting.  

Share details with your doctor   

This will allow you to understand if you're at risk for any hereditary diseases. A medical expert will also help you decide what lifestyle changes, screenings, and other preventative measures may be needed.   

Close the gaps  

You may not be able to get all the information you need from your family members, but pay close attention to patterns that may indicate undiagnosed conditions.  

Despite how difficult or uncomfortable these conversations may be, remember that they could save the lives of those closest to you and help them live life to the fullest.

Now that's love. 

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