Lovely grandfather showing family photos to his beautiful grandchildren, discussing why is it important to know your family's health history.

Why Is it Important to Know Your Family’s Health History?

Thanksgiving has long been a time for families to come together. Since 2004, by declaration of U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona, it has also been National Family History Day, a day for families to talk about their health histories so that everyone can better understand and manage their personal health risks.

It can be difficult enough to remember all the details of our own personal medical histories. If you’ve ever struggled to fill in your family medical history on a doctor’s intake form, you know how little many of us know about the medical histories of our parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and other close blood relatives. Sometimes all it takes is a question to discover that a close relative had a health problem of which you were completely unaware.

With the COVID-19 pandemic still keeping many families apart this year, your extended family may not be crowding around the dinner table for a shared feast. Many families will find other ways to connect, whether through video conferencing or well distanced outdoor gatherings. However you come together, consider taking a little time this Thanksgiving to ask about your family’s medical history.

Why Should You Know Your Family Medical History?

According the book Understanding Genetics, “your family history might be one of the strongest influences on your risk of developing heart disease, stroke, diabetes, or cancer.” Family history may also increase your risk of developing osteoporosis, depression, asthma, Alzheimer’s, and many other conditions. Certain less common but serious genetic conditions, such as sickle cell anemia, can be almost entirely dependent on genetic inheritance from our ancestors.

Healthy lifestyle choices still matter. Regardless of your family history, you’re more likely to stay healthy if you eat a balanced diet, exercise regularly, maintain a healthy weight, stop or never start smoking, drink alcohol only in moderation or not at all, and get regular check-ups and screenings as recommended by your doctor.

However, your family medical history may alert you and your doctor to areas where you have a higher risk than the general population. While you can’t change your family history, you can make lifestyle changes that are well informed by your higher risks. Your doctor may also recommend that you get screened for common diseases at an earlier age or more frequently. (These may include mammograms, colorectal cancer screenings, blood-sugar tests, and more.) In some cases, your doctor may recommend preemptive treatments, such as calcium and vitamin D supplements for those with a higher risk of osteoporosis.

How Do I Ask My Family About Their Medical History?

Depending on your family dynamics, it may feel a little awkward at first to ask your family members about their personal medical histories, and, sure, you probably don’t want to ask your dad to “pass the potatoes and tell me about your prostate.” Framed right, however, this can be a very loving conversation that highlights the deep connections in your family and shows your kind concern for everyone’s health.

The Surgeon General created National Family History Day in part to help start those conversations. Over Thanksgiving, you can tell your family that it’s National Family History Day, talk about the importance of knowing your family medical history, then make it a family activity to gather that history. Because a comprehensive family medical history includes information about ethnicity — some diseases are more common in certain ethnic and racial groups than others — you may even learn something new about your family ancestry.

November is American Diabetes Awareness Month, which gives you an excuse to ask about a family history of diabetes. It’s “Movember,” a month to focus on men’s health issues such as prostate and testicular cancer, and men’s mental health issues. And last month was National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, so it’s certainly not too late to use that as a conversation opener.

The CDC and the NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute have also created printable and online tools to help you collect all the relevant family health information. The National Human Genome Research Institute’s Families SHARES program provides printable worksheets for children and adults to fill out, assessing their risks of breast and colorectal cancer, Type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. The CDC’s My Family Health Portrait is an online tool that guides you through gathering your complete family health history in a downloadable and printable file to share with your family and doctor. (While the tool is online, no personal data is shared or stored with the CDC.)

What Should I Do With My Family Health History?

In short: save it securely, and share it with your family and doctors.

Whether you collect your family history in digital or paper form, save it somewhere secure so you’ll have it available whenever you need to update or reference it.

Consider sending copies to your close relatives. Just as their medical history can help you assess your health risks, your history can help them do the same.

Most importantly, share your complete history with your doctors. Together, you can discuss what risks are revealed in your family history. Your doctor may then recommend any lifestyle changes, screenings, or preemptive measures that will lower your risks and help you and your family live healthier.

Would you like help collecting your family health history? Or would you like to discuss your family history with a doctor? Make an appointment with a United Physician Group Family Medicine doctor.