“96 percent of Americans believe that knowing their family history is important. Yet, the same survey found that only one-third of Americans have ever tried to gather and write down their family's health history.” – U.S. Department of Health & Human Services
For many families, Thanksgiving is an opportunity for conversation. Beyond arguing about politics (not that you do that, of course!), getting together around the dinner table can be a perfect time to talk about your family’s health history. In fact, the surgeon general declares Thanksgiving to be National Family History Day for this very reason.
Family history is one of the main ways of knowing your health risks.
Be Proactive About Your Health
“I encourage everyone over Thanksgiving and at other times during the holiday season to talk about, and to write down, the health problems that seem to run in their family,” said Dr. Booker Bush of Baystate High Street Health Center. Armed with information about your family’s health history, you and your doctor can take proactive steps to keep you healthy.
Both common (like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes) and rare diseases (like cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia) run in families. When your doctor knows about the illnesses your parents and grandparents (and other blood relatives) have had, your health risks can become more predictable. For example, if a close relative was diagnosed with breast cancer or colon cancer, your doctor might change the age at which you should start screening.
Every Patient Has a Story to Tell
“There are many issues your healthcare 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. Bush.
According to Dr. Bush, getting the entire family history is important, because it tells him 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 preventive 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.
The benefits of learning about your family's health history are certainly clear. Still, the conversation isn't always easy. Here are five steps for getting your family talking:
5 Steps for Talking about Health History This Thanksgiving
- Get prepared. Start by making a list of the blood relatives you need to include in your family health history. This list should include your parents, brothers and sisters (and half-siblings), children, grandparents, uncles and aunts, and nieces and nephews. You can also expand the list to include great uncles and aunts and cousins.
- Give your family a heads up. Before the holiday, let your relatives know that you’d like to have a conversation about health history. An email, text, or phone call ahead of time will give your family time to prepare. Explain that learning more about family health history can help save lives.
- Prepare your questions. Know in advance what you’d like to ask. To start, you can follow this list recommended by the surgeon general:
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 miscarriages?
What medications are you currently taking?
- Start the conversation. To help break the ice, begin by sharing your own health history. When you’re ready to start asking questions, ask one question at a time. Be sensitive to your relatives’ feelings, and understand that there might be some information they aren’t comfortable sharing.
- Take notes and organize your information. During your family conversation, be sure to have a notepad or tablet on hand to record information. Let your family know that you will share your notes with them. After your conversation, visit the My Family Health Portrait tool (provided by hhs.gov) to organize your family health history. The online tool will allow you to enter your information, learn about health risks, and print and share with your family and health care provider.
Do you have questions about family health history and preventive care? Talk to your primary care provider to learn more.