Thanksgiving is not just a time to gather around the groaning board and watch football all day. Thanksgiving is also National Family Health History Day, a day that can literally save your life. The Surgeon General of the United States developed this initiative in 2004 to encourage families to take a moment while they are all together to discuss their family health and encourage each other to share their family history with their healthcare providers.

Many diseases, both common and uncommon, are hereditary. Diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and sickle cell anemia are just a few conditions that can be identified genetically. Although the majority of people in the U.S. understand how important it is to disclose family health history, only 1/3 have tried to gather their family health history and write it down.

This year, the Surgeon General has a new tool to make it easy to gather this vital information: the My Family Health Portrait web tool. Offered in English, Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian, this easy-to-use tool puts all of your family health history at your fingertips. You can save it and update it whenever you need to. The history can also be printed out if you or a family member switches healthcare providers. If you have a Microsoft HealthVault account, information can be copied directly from that into the My Family Portrait web tool.

For a family health history to be complete, it should ideally contain the following information:

  • Health information for three generations
  • Date of birth
  • Ethnicity
  • Any medical conditions or diseases
  • Age at time of diagnosis
  • Diet
  • Habits: smoking, drinking, exercise, drug use
  • For deceased relatives, cause of death and age at time of death

It is also important to note any occurrence of the following diseases, disorders, or conditions:

  • Alcoholism or substance abuse
  • Arthritis
  • Asthma
  • Cancer
  • Dementia
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Kidney disease
  • Learning or developmental disabilities
  • Mental illness (including depression and anxiety)
  • Miscarriage, stillbirth, birth defects, or infertility
  • Stroke
  • Vision or hearing problems

Some of the above can be very sensitive topics in families, and these can be difficult conversations to have. Make these conversations as neutral and constructive as possible. Gathering a family health history can help future generations make better choices about their healthcare. When you know better, you do better, and anything your family is comfortable sharing is a start.

Your family may feel more comfortable writing this information down or sharing it privately, away from the rest of the family. Older family members may come from a generation that just doesn’t talk about sensitive medical matters. In this case, they may be more comfortable talking about other things as a way to get to the medical issues. Asking about sick brothers and sisters, or reminiscing about their own parents, may help them explore their medical history with a little more ease.

Of course, you want to keep the holiday all about family and togetherness. Talk to each family member when it seems appropriate. If you try to get the football fanatic to re-count their childhood struggles with weight during the last few minutes of a close game you will get very little information. Ultimately, you know your family and what the best approach is. If you are uncomfortable doing it alone, enlist the help of a sibling, spouse, or cousin. And remember: this is not just for you. It is for the next generation of your family, too.

National Health History Day and Thanksgiving go together like mashed potatoes and gravy, like pumpkin pie and whipped cream, like turkey and stuffing (or dressing!). Have a wonderful holiday!

Image by Yoni Lerner via Flickr

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