As the holiday season unfolds, families will be coming together to make and share memories. These family gatherings also provide a great opportunity to share your family’s health history as a way to both learn more about your ancestors and help you and your family be healthier.
In fact, Thanksgiving is designated as National Family Health History Day.
Most of us have a family history of at least one chronic disease – such as cancer, heart disease, or diabetes – which makes us more likely to get that disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And while medical experts acknowledge having a chronic condition in your family history doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be afflicted, knowing about it can help you take steps to reduce your risk.
“When you know a disease runs in your family, you can use that knowledge to develop greater awareness of the warning signs and work with your doctor on better prevention,” said Dr. Jennifer Chambers, the chief medical officer at Capital BlueCross. “If you have a family history of colon cancer, for example, your doctor might recommend colorectal cancer screenings more frequently or at an earlier age.”
Compiling a family health history can encompass more than just making a list of known diseases and health conditions in your family. Families also can discuss:
- Shared patterns in diets or exercise habits.
- The prevalence of potentially addictive behaviors, such as smoking or drug and alcohol use.
- Common traits in environment, such as whether you live in the same areas where you might be exposed to shared risks.
To help guide the family discussion, the U.S. Surgeon General offers an online tool called “My Family Health Portrait.” This free resource can help you both collect your family health history and easily share it with your family members and doctor.
For some families, discussing personal health issues might seem uncomfortable. To help start the discussion, the CDC recommends ways to broach the topic:
- If you have a newly diagnosed medical condition, let your family members know about it. By sharing yourself, they might open up about their own health issues.
- If you’ve had genetic testing done, share the results with your family members.
- If you’re among the older members in your family, you may know more about family diseases and health conditions, especially among deceased relatives. Share that history.
Dr. Chambers suggests families also should make sure the discussion touches on mental health issues, not just physical ones.
“We know some mental health issues, including depression, can run in families,” she explained. “Having candid family discussions can be a powerful way to break down the stigma around mental health issues, not to mention a way of offering support for loved ones who might be struggling. Learning and sharing our family health histories in this way can not only help make us healthier as individuals – it can bring us closer together as families.”