National Kidney Foundation: E-Kidney

E-Kidney | NOVEMBER 2012

Thanksgiving family

Your Family Health History – The Top 5 List

As your family gathers at the holiday table passing around the turkey, the National Kidney Foundation encourages you to think about something else that gets passed down – your genes. Did Cousin Melissa inherit Aunt Sue's red hair? Does Brother Joey have Mom's blue eyes? Beyond genetic traits visible on the surface, what else has been passed down for generations? Most of us don't realize that our family tree plays an important role in our long-term health.

This holiday season, have an important discussion with your relatives about your family's health history. While this topic of conversation may seem as heavy as the meal on the table, remember that it's never easy to discuss medical conditions or causes of death. Since many health issues are inherited, knowing your clan's chronicle is critical. With so many family members all in one place, you can't afford to pass up on this opportunity. What are you waiting for? Carve the turkey, pass the gravy and jump on in. Here is the National Kidney Foundation's "top 5 to-do list" regarding family health history.

  1. Who to ask. Whose medical history matters? Make a list that includes your grandparents on both sides of the family, your parents, aunts and uncles. Also, add all the members of your immediate family and their relationship to you.
  2. What to ask. Ask about any major illnesses, hospitalizations and causes of death. Find out if there have been any unusual medical events in your family because certain diseases tend to run in families. A family history of dialysis or transplantation will give you a clue that kidney disease may run in yours. For any deceased family members, record their age at death and cause of death. If any relatives appeared healthy but died suddenly, mark that down to discuss with your doctor.
  3. Learn your risk factors. A risk factor makes you more likely to develop a particular disease or health condition.In general, risk factors can be other diseases, traits such as your age or race, or behaviors such as smoking. Genetic risk factors refer to those that could be passed down through your genes. If kidney disease, diabetes, or high blood pressure run in your family, it's important to make a note of them because these place you at increased risk for developing kidney disease. If you are African American, Asian, Hispanic, American Indian, or Pacific Islander, you are at increased risk for kidney disease.
  4. Share this info with your doctor. Knowing your risk factors and sharing them with your physician helps your healthcare provider realize that you should be screened for diseases that may be transmitted genetically in your family. Currently, there is no universal blood test that screens for all genetic diseases, so you must speak up about your health history to help guide your doctor where to look.
  5. Get tested. It may seem scary, but they are ways to help prevent or minimize the impact of hereditary diseases. These might include making lifestyle changes or further testing for detection and treatment. Screening for kidney disease involves blood and urine testing. Certain kidney diseases, including polycystic kidney (PKD) disease and Alport's syndrome, can be specifically tested in the lab. Once kidney disease is known to be present, a blood sample from a family member can be used to test for others with the genetic disease. If you are diagnosed with kidney disease, you should go back and share this with your family members so that they can be aware of their own risk.