When the U.S. Surgeon General declared in 2004 that National Family Health History Day would fall on Thanksgiving each year, he was acknowledging the importance of knowing your family health history. You and your family share genes, culture, behaviors, and environments – all of which can have an impact on your health. When you know that information and share it with your doctor, he or she can make more informed choices for how to personalize your health screenings and treatment. Thanksgiving can be a great time to talk with your family about how your health is related, so you can give your doctor the best information possible.
So this is really about understanding your possible risks?
That’s right. If heart disease or cancer or diabetes, or some other chronic condition runs in your family, that could affect the timing of tests and screenings and other interventions your doctor could decide you should have. You can make more informed choices about your health when you have more information.
What are some of the questions to ask?
You will want to ask about chronic diseases, such as heart disease or diabetes, and health conditions such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol. You’ll also want to ask about more serious diseases such as cancer or stroke, and how old relatives were when they were diagnosed. Ancestry is important as well – if you don’t already know, ask what countries your family comes from.
This might be sensitive, and some people might not want to discuss such personal information. Do you have suggestions for how to broach the subject in families that don’t like to talk about health?
If health is a sensitive subject in your family, start by privately asking your closest family members about whether there is anything that might be good for you to know without naming specific relatives. You should know that they don’t have to tell you anything if they don’t want to, but your close family members may be happy to tell you about any health conditions they have had, as well as conditions your ancestors, such as great-grandparents, might have had.
How should you collect this information?
You can write it down and then use a web-based tool to organize it and share it with your family members. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests My Family Health Portrait, which is a tool from the U.S. Surgeon General. You can find it by doing an internet search for “My Family Health Portrait.”
What if you’re adopted?
Then it may be more difficult, but it’s not impossible. It’s becoming more common for adoption agencies to collect medical information on birth relatives, but it’s not routine. The National Adoption Clearinghouse offers information on adoption and could be helpful if you decide to search for your birth parents. To learn more, visit http://www.childwelfare.gov/adoption.
A Closer Look at Your Health airs weekly on Boise’s KBOI-670AM. This is the transcript of the Nov. 21, 2017 program.
- My Family Health Portrait: https://familyhistory.hhs.gov/FHH/html/index.html
- CDC: Gather and Share Your Family Health History: http://www.cdc.gov/features/familyhealthhistory/