Family Historians and Dementia

Two of my uncles have spent years tracing our family’s winding path through history. When a loved one starts to lose their memory, ancestral details can vanish in a flash. But if there is an incidence of dementia among your relatives, the health history of your family may be even more important than dates on gravestones and photos of Aunt Martha.

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A Winter 2013 article published by AARP Health and MetLife, explains the importance of collecting family health history such as dates of  heart attacks, strokes, or other health problems suffered by close kin. This kind of information can help the next generation screen for illnesses they may be likely to develop. If you have a family member with dementia, knowledge is critical because it’s a cryptic disease that may be exacerbated by problems like mini-strokes or hypertension which occur well before memory loss.

The article divides the process of collecting family health history into three steps:

  • Get Organized  – make lists of what AARP refers to as “first degree” (parents, siblings, and children) and “second degree” relatives (aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents) and document the ages at which any “heart attacks, strokes, or deaths occurred”
  • Get the Information – the article encourages families to create a health profile for each family member with “dates for illnesses, surgeries, marriages, births and deaths” and use this info to create a family tree illustrating the health history of your kinship network.
  • Get Healthier by Sharing the information – Providing your children, siblings and other relatives with this data can help everyone learn more about their potential health risks. You can also discuss the findings with your primary care doctor when addressing your own health issues and treatment options.

Knowing the details of our family health profile can help us make good decisions about protecting our own health. We all carry a subtle psychological burden when a close relative has dementia. The fear of developing this disease exerts quiet pressure on caregivers who have witnessed its relentless attack on people we love. The best defense against this predator is to become aggressive, informed defenders of our own health.

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