You are using an older version of Internet Explorer that is not supported on this site. Please upgrade for the best experience.

National Family History Day on Thanksgiving encourages Americans to know their health history

November 25, 2015
Plate Family portrait

How many times have you been to the doctor’s office and had someone take your family history?

Did you know the answer when asked if your father or grandmother had diabetes? Cancer? History of depression?

“There are many issues your health care provider will want to discuss with you, simply because of your age. As we get older, the risk for different medical conditions grows. However, when there is a history of certain conditions in your family, we will make different recommendations for testing and our diagnostic decisions will change based on medical issues in your family,” said Dr. Booker Bush of Baystate Medical Center’s Baystate High Street Health Center – Adult Medicine.

What does Dr. Bush want to hear about?

“I believe that the entire family history is important, because it tells me about where a patient came from. Every patient has their own story to tell, and knowing about their family makes it even more interesting. For preventative care, it is important to know about diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and cancer histories. For example, for women, a history of breast cancer changes when I will recommend beginning screening mammography. When a person has a family history of colon cancer, I may recommend an earlier age for colonoscopy. I also want to learn if there have been problems with blood clots in the family. Mental health issues also run in families, as well as substance abuse,” said Dr. Bush.

Each year since 2004, the Surgeon General has declared Thanksgiving to be National Family History Day. Over the holiday or at other times when families gather, the Surgeon General encourages Americans to talk about, and to write down, the health problems that seem to run in their family.

Because family health history is such a powerful screening tool, the Surgeon General has created a computerized tool to help make it fun and easy for anyone to create a sophisticated portrait of their family’s health history. The Web-based tool helps users organize family history information and then print it out for presentation to their family doctor. In addition, the tool helps users save their family history information to their own computer and even share family history information with other family members. You can access the My Family Health Portrait Web tool at familyhistory.hhs.gov.

Dr. Bush said being prepared with a family health history on your first-time visit with any doctor is helpful to them.

“There is always a lot to discuss when I meet with a patient, and the more organized information he or she has ready to offer me at the time of our meeting, the more productive our session will be. I used the tool, and it took me a lot of time to complete, but the good thing is that it will lead me to discuss more information with my own health care provider than if I hadn’t prepared one. For instance, I forgot that my father had a history of blood clotting, and that’s important to know, especially if I have certain symptoms,” said Dr. Bush.

Before you begin to create your family health history with the Surgeon General’s web-based tool, the office recommends considering the following:

Make a list of relatives – Write down the names of the blood relatives that you need to include in your family health history. The most import relatives to talk with are your parents, your brothers and sisters, and your children. Next should be grandparents, uncles and aunts, nieces and nephews, and any half-brothers or half-sisters. It is also helpful to talk to great uncles and great aunts, as well as cousins.

Prepare your questions – Write out your questions ahead of time because it will help you to focus your discussion. Among the questions to ask are:

• Do you have any chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, high blood pressure or diabetes?

• Have you had any other serious illnesses, such as cancer or stroke?

• How old were you when you developed these illnesses?

• Have you or your partner had any difficulties with pregnancies, such as miscarriage?

• What medications are you currently taking?

Also, ask questions about other relatives, both living and deceased, such as:

• What is our family’s ancestry – what country did they come from?

• Has anyone in the family had learning or developmental disabilities?

• What illnesses did your late grandparents have? How old were they when they died? What caused their deaths?

“And, creating a family history isn’t something that you do, then put away and forget about. You should remember to always keep your family history up-to-date,” said Dr. Bush.

For more information on the family history tool, visit familyhistory.hhs.gov.

Also, for more information on Baystate Medical Center, visit baystatehealth.org/bmc.