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This Thanksgiving, take time to dish about family health history

November 25, 2013

    Hanna Jaquith, Daily Briefing

    Somewhere between carving the turkey and fighting over the wishbone, families should take the time to discuss the diseases and conditions that make up their medical histories—an inexpensive, yet effective way to predict disease risk, says acting Surgeon General Boris Lushniak.

    For the tenth year, the office of the surgeon general has declared Thanksgiving "National Family History Day" as part of its campaign to encourage individuals to address the health conditions that run in the family. While most adults acknowled that knowing their medical history is important, only three in 10 have followed through to create their own family health history, federal data show.

    "The message that we're trying to get out first and foremost is understanding your own family history is important to your own health," Lushniak says, adding, "It ties into who you are and what you are at risk for." For example, a person who has an immediate family member with heart disease is more than twice as likely to develop the condition themselves compared with someone without that family history.

    Attempts to raise awareness and interest in family health histories coincide with a burgeoning interest in genomics and gene testing, notes physician Kathryn Teng, director of Cleveland Clinic's Center for Personalized Medicine. She says that medical evidence has proven that "when it comes to predicting risk of disease, family health history is still more predictive than any genomic test."

    Examining family health history data reveals patterns that can help providers make more informed treatment decisions:  "[It] allows us to customize preventative care plans and say to somebody, 'You really need to go for that mammogram or you really need to work on your risk for diabetes, or you really need to have that colonoscopy to screen for colon cancer at a younger age,'" Teng says.

    Nonetheless, discussing family illness and disease may not be the easiest—or most cheerful—topic to bring up during a holiday meal. USA Today's Michelle Healy offers a few tips for getting started:

    • Compile a list of your relatives. Aim for three generations, if possible.
    • Plan your questions. Ask about a wide range of health conditions, as well as the age when the problem started. For deceased relatives, ask about the cause and age of death. And try and include lifestyle information, such as diet and exercise, smoking, and alcohol.
    • Explain your purpose. Inform your relatives—in a sensitive and respectful manner—that the information they share about their individual health will benefit the entire family.
    • Pick a good time to talk. Family gatherings—like Thanksgiving—are the ideal setting.
    • Keep your records up to date. There are several free online tools available to help you collect and organize your data. A family history created on the surgeon general's website "My Family Health Portrait" can even be integrated into a Microsoft HealthVault account, a Web-based platform for storing and sharing medical records.

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