08/29/2012 01:37 pm ET Updated Oct 29, 2012

Do You Know Your Family Health History? Find Out on Labor Day Weekend

As you fire up the grill this weekend and enjoy the last days of summer surrounded by family, there's an important discussion you should have. It's about your family's health history. Most of us don't realize that our family tree plays a pretty important role in determining our own health. Beyond Dad's freckles, Mom's blue eyes and Grandma's math gene, what else has been passed down for generations? Health issues are inherited and knowing your history is critical.

Crack the Code

Human DNA code has been broken, the human genome has been sequenced and the genetic causes of many diseases have now been recognized. Hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis, kidney stones and kidney disease are all known to be transmitted in families. Polycystic kidney disease is the most common genetic kidney disease and we know the exact chromosome and gene that is responsible for it. The National Kidney Foundation encourages you to take the opportunity during this holiday weekend to talk to your family members about your clan's history of kidney disease and its two leading causes -- hypertension and diabetes.

Make a List

The people lounging on the hammock and spiking your punch today may have the answers to your health issues of tomorrow. While this conversation may be a little heavy for the occasion, the gathering of so many family members is an opportunity you can't afford to miss. It's never easy to discuss medical conditions and mortality, so think of an ice-breaker and jump in. Don't leave the patio until you know the medical history of your grandparents on both sides of the family, both your parents and their brothers and sisters. It helps to make a list of all the members of your immediate family, including their names and relationship to you. Ask about any major illnesses, hospitalizations and causes of death. Find out if there have been any unusual medical events in your family. A history of dialysis or transplantation will give you a clue that kidney disease may run in your family. There is even a website that can help you record your family history.

Rate Your Risk

Approximately 11 percent of the adult United States population has kidney disease. But if you have a family history of kidney failure, diabetes, or hypertension, your risk of developing kidney failure may be as high as 1 in 5. If you have a known risk factor, it helps your doctor realize that you should be screened for diseases that may be transmitted genetically in your family. Racial genetics are also risk factors. If you are African American, Asian, Hispanic, American Indian, or Pacific Islander, you are at increased risk for kidney disease.

Act on Your Family History

Once you know you have a risk factor, you need to be tested. Screening for kidney function involves blood and urine testing. 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.

Genetic Testing -- Know What You're Looking For

There are a number of genetic diseases, including polycystic kidney disease and Alport's syndrome that can now be 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. Currently, there is no universal blood test that screens for all genetic diseases -- you must know what you are looking for in order to find it.

This Labor Day, in between the bites of hamburger and cole slaw, take the time to talk to members of your family about this important issue. Your quick conversation might save your life or the life of a family member someday.

For more by Leslie Spry, M.D., FACP, click here.

Fore more on personal health, click here.