Both common and rare diseases are known to run in families. Diseases such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis, hemophilia, sickle cell anemia and cystic fibrosis are commonly seen from generation to generation.
While 96% of Americans realize that knowing their family history is important, only 33% have attempted to gather and record their family health history.
In 2004 the U.S. Surgeon General declared Thanksgiving to be National Family History Day. Over the holiday weekend, it is encouraged that all families come together to learn, organize, and understand their family health history this Thanksgiving.
Why the Information is Helpful
Knowing what illnesses your blood relatives had can help your doctor predict what you could be at risk for. With many conditions, simple actions such as diet or lifestyle changes can then be taken to keep you healthy. Your doctor may decide to monitor you closely for a potential condition. It is possible you will be advised on signs to look for that may help you identify when you start experiencing the illness so you can quickly seek medical attention. Or you may learn lifestyle changes that can be made to help prevent or delay the development the disease. The ultimate goal is for you and your family to have a long, healthy future in spite of the genes you inherited.
Who Should You Talk To?
It is important to discuss past medical history with your closest blood related family members. Be sure to include:
- Aunts & Uncles
What Information Do You Need to Obtain?
Ask family members if they know of any birth defects or childhood health problems that occurred in the past that you might not be aware of. Record the age and cause of death of any deceased blood relatives. Ask about common diseases and try to determine if they occur in more than one close relative. For example ask about diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Find out if any diseases occurred at an early age. Learn if any family members had a disease that does not typically affect their gender making it more likely to be hereditary (such as a male with breast cancer).
How To Go About Initiating the Conversation
Bringing up health can sometimes be a tricky, awkward converstaion to start. Consider letting family members know in advance that you are interested in recording family health information this Thanksgiving. This will give them time to reflect on their medical history in advance and will prevent anyone from being caught off guard when the topic is brought up. Express the importance of having this conversation and that you will be recording the information so you can share it with your doctor.
Timing is important. You won't want to bring up the topic of health at the moment when the turkey is being carved, however, It will be possible to find an appropriate time when everyone is together. While people are relaxing with a cup of coffee after dessert might work. Or while everyone is waiting around for the turkey to finish cooking, a health conversation may provide a good distraction.
While you are discussing family medical history it is also a good time to talk about health planning. Do you have aging parents? Is a care plan in place for the future? Have family caregiving arrangements been discussed? Having these difficult conversations in advance can greatly reduce the stress at the time when a decision must be made.
Designate one person (it'll likely be you, since you brought it up) to record the information that is shared. While it'll work to jot it down in a notebook or in a document on the computer, the most effective way to store the information is in a place that everybody can access it. Many families use our collaborative (and free) CareSync app for web, iPhone and Android smartphones & tablets to record health conditions, medications, allergies, and other important health information. Having the information in an easy-to-access place makes it simple the next time your doctor asks you about family medical history. And the whole family can access it!
Take some time this Thanksgiving Holiday to discuss an important matter that could provide you and your loved ones the benefit of a long, healthy life. Although it may seem awkward to bring up the topic of health history at a holiday celebration, it is definitely worthwhile.
You may even find that the discussion prompts memories of the past and you learn more than just the health history of your family!