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Why Knowing Your Family Health History Matters

As someone who has worked in the medical/healthcare industry for many years, I’ve said, heard or written the phrase “know your family health history” many, many times. But like so many of the health messages we hear, I’ve never really stopped to think of what this one might mean to me. After all, at the time of my stroke, I considered myself to be 100% healthy—plus, I exercised and ate right, so I felt like I had my bases covered.

Saying “I wish I had” is definitely an understatement.

If I had paid attention, I would have known (or remembered) that when I was younger, my dad had a stroke and also experienced a carotid artery dissection (CAD)—which turned out to be the same condition I later learned I had—which could have killed me.

Three in 100,000 people will have a CAD in their lifetime, but many people don’t know about it, and many patients are misdiagnosed. If you don’t know my story, you can read the details about what happened here.

My Dad's Story

My dad, Jerry, experienced a double CAD in 1999. Double CADs rare, and occur when both carotid arteries, which are the two large blood vessels that supply oxygenated blood to the brain, become torn or damaged.

This happened when he was just 52 years old. Like me, he was in good health when it happened. But unlike me, his condition came on suddenly in the middle of the night.

When he went to the emergency room, doctors initially misdiagnosed his condition as allergies. But when he went home, he continued to experience symptoms, including severe headaches and temporary vision loss in one eye. It wasn't until he went to an Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) doctor, who referred him to a surgeon, where he was correctly diagnosed. My dad was then referred to a neurologist and admitted to the hospital.

CADs are sometimes caused by trauma. With my dad, there hadn’t been an accident, but the doctors believe heavy lifting may have contributed. No one knows for sure why mine happened; neurologists believe there may be a family link to CAD, but it hasn’t yet been scientifically proven. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of research out there about CAD.

Knowing Matters

At the time, I didn't closely track all the medical information related to my dad’s condition. I was focused on his recovery, and I was relieved when he got better. Years passed, and I forgot about many of the details when I suffered my CAD.

Would remembering that my dad had CAD change the fact that I had one? Of course not. But, still, having that information could have made a big difference such as:

  • I would have known that I was at risk for stroke and CAD, so I should be prepared and known the symptoms.

  • I would have sought help sooner, possibly sparing me from some of the horrible symptoms I experienced that went on for many days, including the worst headache of my life.

  • I could have provided doctors clues to what was happening to me, which could have reduced the time to get a proper diagnosis. A quicker diagnosis could have helped my artery fully heal (My CAD caused a 90% blockage, which has healed to only be about 50%).

Have your parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles had health issues? How much do you know about their condition, what caused it and how did it impact them?

I encourage you to ask your family about their medical history and collect the information. Then, at your next doctor visit, be sure to share it. Your doctor can enter this information into your permanent health record. This means it can be used to develop a more complete picture of your health and your risk factors for disease. Then, with your health care provider, you can work on ways to reduce any risks you may have.

Visit the American Medical Association’s Collecting a Family History to learn more, access resources and watch a video.

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