Published on November 18, 2016

Need something safe to talk about this Thanksgiving?Need something safe to talk about this Thanksgiving?

If you want to keep politics, football and controversy off the Thanksgiving table this year, talking about National Family History Day is a great way to keep the conversation palatable.

The Surgeon General created National Family History Day in 2004 to encourage families to document their health histories.

“Your family medical history is important to you and other family members,” said Gaurav Dang, MD, who specializes in family medicine at Emerald Physician Services, LLC. “With a detailed family history, you can catch some diseases as early as 20 years before symptoms manifest themselves.”

Asthma, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, high cholesterol and certain types of cancer are examples of diseases that can be hereditary, he said. A good family history that includes any healthcare concerns your parents have (or had) and what medications they take can help you avoid the disease or catch it early.

“It’s good to have as much information as we can about direct-linking parents. A history that also includes second-degree relatives, such as aunts and uncles, is an excellent tool,” Dr. Dang said.

How to Document Your Medical Genealogy

Organizing your family medical history is as easy as organizing a genealogical chart or family tree. Start with yourself. List your birthday, height, weight, any known medical conditions, when they were diagnosed, and any medications you currently take. Then do the same for your siblings and parents.

That completes two levels of branches on your family healthcare tree. Move up the tree in the same way, documenting grandparents, aunts and uncles. The goal, as with traditional genealogy, is to include as many branches of your family tree as possible.

A pen and paper are fine for recording your family healthcare tree, but you may want to try the electronic approach.

My Family Health Portrait is available at www.familyhistory.hhs.gov. Using this interactive tool from the Surgeon General you can:

  • Enter your family health history.
  • Learn about your risk for conditions that can run in families.
  • Print your family health history to share with family and your healthcare provider.
  • Save your family health history so you can update it.

Learning about, documenting and sharing your family medical history can have multiple benefits.

For example, Dr. Dang noted that children with a parent who had early colon cancer (around age 40 or earlier) or breast cancer can begin those screenings for early detection of the disease.

Male breast cancer is something we seldom think about; however, doctors can check for the BRCA gene if they are aware that many of the patient’s direct female relatives had breast cancer.

Adopted Children Can Also Benefit

“It can be difficult to find clues to your medical history if you were adopted, but I always ask questions about exposure to second-hand smoke, for instance,” said Dr. Dang. “If you were exposed, we should document that on your medical history and watch for things like COPD or emphysema.”

Dr. Dang said he is surprised by how many older patients have not discussed their health concerns with their children.

“People will bring their parents to my office and stay with them during the appointment. Sometimes when I ask how the patient is feeling and how they are managing their diabetes, for example, the kids will say, ‘I didn’t know you have diabetes!’

“Getting people to talk about their health concerns is important. I’m glad to have this opportunity to get these things out in the open, and I encourage families to discuss these things. It can be eye-opening and offer reassurance to all family members.”