By Diane Allingham-Hawkins, PhD, FCCMG, FACMG, Senior Director, Genetic Test Evaluation Program and Technical Editing
Happy Thanksgiving! Before we gather to celebrate with our families this Thanksgiving, we have a request. While you’re enjoying the turkey and cranberry sauce, take the opportunity to learn about your family health history. We’ll be doing it and we hope our clients and colleagues will, too.
Since 2004, the Surgeon General has declared Thanksgiving to be National Family Health History Day. Why is it important to know your family health history? Simply put, family health history is one of the most powerful screening tools at your disposal. Common diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and cancer can run in families. Knowing the diseases that are common in your family can help your doctor evaluate your risk and advise you about what you can do to reduce that risk. A recent survey found that while 96% of Americans know that their family history is important, just one third have ever tried to collect their family health history.
But where do you start? Geneticists typically recommend reviewing a minimum of 3 generations in your family health history. This means that the most important people to know about are your parents, your siblings (including half-siblings), and your children. If possible, you should also speak with your grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews. Remember to include both sides of your family (i.e., your mother’s side and your father’s side). Ask what country your family originally came from, even if it was many generations ago. Write down each person’s name and ask questions such as:
- Do you have any chronic conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or heart disease?
- Do you have or have you ever had cancer? If yes, what kind of cancer?
- How old were you when you were diagnosed with these conditions?
You also need to know about any deceased relatives. How old were they when they died and how did they die? Did they have any other diseases?
Once you have gathered all of this information, don’t just put it in a drawer and forget about it. Start by giving it to your doctor in written form and ask him or her to review it. You can also use the Surgeon General’s online tool “My Family Health Portrait”. This fun, interactive tool allows you to create a “portrait” of your family that you can print out and share with your doctor and your family.
What better gift could you give yourself and your loved ones this holiday season than the potentially life-saving information of your family health history?