- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The holiday season offers lots of chances for family reunions and “catch-up sessions” thanks to all those long letters from distant relatives.

People’s aches, pains, surgeries and illnesses always come up, don’t they? This year, please pay attention to these details, as they might help ensure better health for the younger generations.

In January, the federal government is updating its nifty Web tool called My Family Health Portrait (https://familyhistory.hhs.gov), which allows families to track their heritable diseases and illnesses.

“Talking about and sharing your own family health history is something you can do right now in order to gain an understanding of your health and the health of family members,” says Acting Surgeon General Steven K. Galson. “Tracing the illnesses your grandparents, parents and additional blood relatives have suffered from can help your health care provider predict diseases and disorders from which you could be at risk.”

Scoliosis, for example, can be traced from a grandmother to a grandson and great-grandson, the Web site shows.

In other “portrait” scenarios:

cA 35-year-old mother sees she has a high risk for diabetes, and staves off the disease by changing her diet and lifestyle.

cA 34-year-old man sees that with a cholesterol count of 300 and family history of heart attacks by age 45, he is facing a shortened life unless he stops smoking, goes on a diet, starts walking and takes some medicine.

cYoung newlyweds with French-Canadian ancestry see that they have an elevated risk for having a baby with Tay-Sachs disease, a lethal disorder of the nervous system. They can undergo genetic counseling and testing to clarify their risk.

Besides tracking common problems, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancers, the histories can pinpoint children’s risk for rarer conditions, such as hemophilia, cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia.

All data put on My Family Health Portrait stays on home computers; no information is collected on government computers, the Surgeon General’s office says. The current version of the Web tool is being replaced in January, so families are being encouraged to gather data now and input it on the new version.

Americans genuinely understand the concept of “forewarned is forearmed” - a survey of more than 4,000 adults found that 96 percent agree it’s “important” to know family health history, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found in 2004. However, only 30 percent of those adults actually collected health information.

My family would be in that 30 percent; my parents’ health histories run several pages, and I try to stay on top of who had what illness when.

But let me raise one more issue, since years of covering adoption issues has burned it into my soul. Adoptees need to know their medical histories, too, and they shouldn’t have to beg, borrow or steal to get this information.

At the very least, state and federal government agencies should supersize their promotions of “mutual reunion” registries, where birth parents, adoptees, siblings and adoptive parents voluntarily list their contact information. Open-records adoptions may not be the norm yet, but more can be done to ensure that essential health information is shared between all families, old and new.

• E-mail Cheryl Wetzstein.