When Liane Eastland realized her two youngest children might "inherit" a chronic disease or health condition, she didn't just sit on her hands and worry.

Eastland took action in the cases of both Eric, 8, and Erica, 13. Her teenage daughter has been diagnosed with high cholesterol while her youngest son fights childhood obesity and is at risk of developing diabetes.

Knowledge of her family's health history has given Eastland the ability to plan in advance how to provide preventative health care for her offspring. Their father, she explained, has high cholesterol in his family background and their maternal grandmother was diagnosed recently with type 2 diabetes.

"Knowing our family history gives us the power and choice to do something about it," she said.

Family health history forms are available online from the U.S. Surgeon General, and filling them in is promoted by health experts as an appropriate project to start during family holiday gatherings. In fact, Thanksgiving has been labeled Family History Day by the Surgeon General for that very reason.

Better knowledge, care

A family health history can help providers give better care to a patient and help identify risks for various diseases. It can aid a doctor with recommendations to reduce risk, and it also assists when trying to identify the early warning signs of disease.

An abrupt health emergency such as a heart attack can be a real wake-up call to the rest of a family, said Dan Saskowski, the program manager for the cardiac rehabilitation and HeartAware programs at Trinity Regional Health System.

"If it happens without any warning, it's like ‘Boom,' and it really gets a person's attention," he said. Compiling a family health history is important so people know what genetic links they have to a given disease or condition, he pointed out.

Chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart conditions now affect seven of every 10 Americans.

"People who have that genetic link need to be that much more conscientious about where they are with their own health," Saskowski said.

Taking a history

Nurses at the Genesis Cancer Care Institute in Davenport take down a family history when a patient first arrives.

"Oftentimes the patients don't know their family health background," said Amy Fitzgibbon, one of the institute's cancer nurse navigators.

"It's just so important all around to know the family health history," she added. "We are trying to make people more aware of this."

When it comes to breast cancer, nurses will try to discern whether there is a genetic link among family members.

"We don't test everyone as only a very small percentage of the population is actually positive," Fitzgibbon said. "But when we assess the family history, we can determine who is at risk and they can discuss the implications with the doctor."

Genetic risk for heart attacks is more significant than for strokes, Saskowski said. "There's a genetic link between stroke and your family history, but that's not as powerful as the family link between heart attacks and your health history."

When patients leave the Genesis Cancer Care Institute, Fitzgibbon hopes they have a better understanding of their family's overall health background.

"It's not just the cancer history, but for all disorders and diseases," she said.

Electronic tool

"My Family Health Portrait" is an electronic tool that makes it easy to record a health history. It should take about 15-20 minutes to build a basic framework, although individuals in larger families may need longer than that.

There is an option to share the information with other family members, and it is a secure document as well, according to the government website: familyhistory.hhs.gov. The document may be easily updated as changes occur.

As for the Eastland family of Bettendorf, they've been going to the Scott County Family Y regularly for two years. The entire group recently began a whole-family, once-a-week workout, Liane Eastland said. Plus, young Eric works out with a trainer four times a week while his mother and Erica exercise three times a week.

So far, Eric's physical activities have been enough to keep his insulin levels down. He's also seen regularly by an endocrinologist and a nutritionist at University Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City.

"My feeling is the more we know about our family history, the more we can teach our children about their own health," his mother said.