Take Time This Thanksgiving to Talk About Family Health

Betty Long, President and Founder of Guardian Nurses Healthcare Advocates, shares tips and tricks to get your family talking about their health.

Take Time This Thanksgiving to Talk About Family Health

In 2004, the Surgeon General declared Thanksgiving Day to be National Family History Day. Over the holiday or at other times when families gather, the Surgeon General has encouraged Americans to talk about, and to write down, the health problems that seem to run in their family. Learning about your family's health history may help ensure a longer, healthier future together.

A survey found that 96% 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.

So, what are you waiting for? Take some time between the parade, the football games, the turkey dinner and the pumpkin pie to learn more about your family secrets – your continued good health could depend on it.

For some of us old enough to remember, a Saturday Night Live character many years ago played by Mike Meyers encouraged people to "Talk amongst yourselves." While Linda Richman (Meyers), the Coffee Talk host, was not specifically suggesting talking about your family health history, we'd like to suggest that for November, it should be.

You know you got your curly red hair from your grandfather and your blue eyes from your dad. These aren't the only things you may have inherited from your family, however. Many medical conditions, including heart disease, breast cancer, prostate cancer, diabetes, alcoholism and Alzheimer's disease have also been shown to be passed down through families.

A family medical history or medical family tree is a record of important medical information about your relatives, including illnesses and diseases.  

Start a family health or medical history by talking with your close family members – parents, grandparents, children and siblings – as they provide the most important links to genetic risk.

Look back about three generations (to your grandparents or great-grandparents) and try to collect details on every direct family member who has died and the cause of death. Also, document the medical conditions of all family members, including the age at which they were first diagnosed, their treatment, and if they ever had surgery. Some important medical conditions to document include:

  • Cancer
  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Asthma
  • Mental illness
  • High blood pressure
  • Stroke
  • Kidney disease
  • Alcoholism
  • Birth defects
  • Learning disabilities
  • Vision or hearing loss 

To make documenting your family history a little bit easier, the Office of the Surgeon General (OSG) has an online tool called My Family Health Portrait that is designed for consumers to create a family health history.

The tool is easy to access on the web and simple to fill out. It assembles your information and makes a "pedigree" family tree that you can download. It is also private, no need to worry about the website keeping your information. It gives you a health history that you can share with family members or better yet, share with your health care team.

According to the OSG, it should only take about 15 to 20 minutes to build a basic family health history. (Of course, for those with larger families who may have more health issues, it will likely take a bit longer).  

If your parents are deceased or your relatives are – shall we say – slightly cranky or uncooperative, it may take some detective work to learn more about your family's medical past. If you can't get access to medical records, try death certificates, obituaries and old family letters. Even old family photos can provide visual clues to diseases such as obesity or skin conditions. 

If you're adopted or otherwise can't learn more about your family's health history, be sure to follow standard screening recommendations and see your healthcare provider for a physical on a regular basis.  

Keep in mind that the format and questions don't have to be perfect. It's really just about getting as much information as you can, in whatever format is easiest for you. What you learn could literally save your life!

Here's a story to bring this home. Recently, a friend, a woman in her mid-40s, was experiencing headaches for weeks and finally decided to visit her primary care physician. After an examination and a thorough history, and many responses of "I don't know" and "Not sure about that one," she thought that perhaps it was time to have "the talk" (no, not THAT talk) with her mother. 

What she found out was that yes, there IS a strong family history of headaches in her family, especially among the women. In fact, her mother commented that "Grandmom had what we called 'sick headaches' that would keep her out of work."  And even when my friend talked with her sister, just two years her junior, she learned that her sister carries migraine medication in her purse 'just in case.'

This information would have been very important for her to know as she began experiencing debilitating headaches, new to her (but apparently not to her sister, mother or grandmother) and painful and severe enough to cause her to see a physician.

So, take some time on Thanksgiving Day, consider having a heart-healthy appetizer while you're waiting for the turkey to be ready, and "talk amongst yourselves." And when you're done, treat yourself for a job well done with a sliver of pumpkin pie!

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