With Thanksgiving festivities in full swing, and as surprising as it may seem, this past Thursday was the perfect opportunity to take an important step towards taking care of your health—and it doesn’t have anything to do with what you eat. Since 2004, the U.S. Surgeon General has designated Thanksgiving as National Family Health History Day. Whether you’re celebrating with your family virtually or in-person this year, it’s a great idea to start a conversation about your family’s health while everyone’s together.
Many health conditions appear to have some hereditary basis, including cancer, diabetes, asthma, osteoporosis, heart disease, depression, high blood pressure, and many more. Even though having family members with certain conditions doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get them too, knowing about your family health history can better equip you and your healthcare provider to take proactive steps, like lifestyle changes and early screening. For many families, having these types of conversations may not come that naturally, but the information they reveal could potentially benefit everyone’s health. A good place to start is by explaining why you want to know about your family members’ health by also sharing information of your own.
In general, the more information, the better, but it can be helpful to know what type of information is the most important. You should know how each person included in your family history is related to you. Be sure to also ask about major medical issues and when they began, causes and ages of death, and your family’s ethnic background. You may also want to ask about allergies, any history of pregnancy loss or birth defects, and lifestyle and environmental factors. Injuries and diseases that don’t have a genetic basis (like Lyme disease, for example) aren’t as necessary to record.
If you were adopted or are estranged from your family, collecting your family history can be significantly more difficult, but it’s still possible. In the case of adoption, you can ask your adoptive parents if they have any information about your birth parents’ health history. You can also reach out to the adoption agency, but be sure to first familiarize yourself with the adoption statutes in your state. If you’re not close with your family, you can try reaching out only to the family members you are most comfortable with, or your healthcare provider may be able to reach out on your behalf.
Once you have all this information, write it down or use the Family Health Portrait tool developed by the U.S. Surgeon General and Department of Health & Human Services. This online tool is free and allows you to store and share your family health history with other members of your family and your healthcare provider, and it’s available in multiple languages. You should review your family history periodically and continue updating it whenever you learn new information.
While you’re feasting (perhaps in spirit) with your loved ones this Thursday, you can feel good knowing that you all empowered each other to lead healthier lives. Happy Thanksgiving, and as always, stay healthy and stay safe!
–The Wellness and Stress Clinic Team