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Talk turkey this Thanksgiving: Learn about your family’s health history

November 18, 2018
family thanksgiving dinner

“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.

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.

Armed with information about your family’s health history, you and your doctor can take proactive steps to keep you healthy.

5 Steps for Talking about Health History This Thanksgiving

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?
  4. 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.
  5. 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.