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How To Talk to Your Loved Ones for Family Health History Day

Family chatting on a video call.

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Key Takeaways

  • This year, Thanksgiving is also National Family Health History Day—a day for gathering health information from your immediate and extended family.
  • When you document the health history of your core and extended family, you can proactively lower your risks for diseases you might be predisposed to.
  • Update family health history record regularly and take it with you to medical appointments to ensure the care you receive meets your needs.

For many families this year, Thanksgiving will not—and should not—be the intimate intergenerational family gathering it usually is.

Still, the COVID-19 pandemic is not likely to prevent grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins from connecting with your family via Zoom, FaceTime, texts, and old-fashioned phone calls.

In addition to turkey, mashed potatoes, and pie, this year health experts are also recommending that folks share generous helpings of their health histories with their extended family. 

National Family Health History Day falls on the fourth Thursday of November each year. The observance is an opportunity for families to collect information on the health conditions and trends within their family tree.

Being aware of our family health history can go a long way in helping us and our relatives stay healthy now and in the future. “It's therefore a powerful tool,” Laura M. Koehly, PhD, chief of the Social and Behavioral Research Branch of the National Human Genome Research Institute, tells Verywell.

Why Record Your Family’s Health History?

Nearly all diseases have a genetic component, meaning that they "run in the family." A genetic disease is determined by hereditary units called genes. Half of our genes are from our biological mother and half from our biological father.

99.9% of our genes are the same as everyone else’s, but that important 0.1% contains variations that explain why we look, act, and are different from others.

These genetic variations also might help explain why different people can have different protection or predispositions to mental and physical illnesses. 

Conditions with a well-known genetic component include:

  • Certain cancers (such as breast and colorectal)
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Osteoporosis

Genetics Are Not Destiny

That said, genes aren’t your fate. Many diseases and conditions can be prevented and their severity lessened by making adjustments to your lifestyle habits and behavior.

Getting screened to ensure early detection also makes a difference, which is why it's important to know your family's health history. You can zero in on specific strategies to stay healthy and lower the health risks that are relevant to you and your family

Many of us know about our parents’ and siblings’ health, and we may have a vague idea about the health of our grandparents and aunts and uncles. There is value in gathering the details and putting them in writing or recording them electronically.  

The closer a relative is to you, the more relevant their health history is to yours. Your immediate family includes your parents, siblings, and grandparents, as well as your aunts, and uncles.

"The more data you have, the better the risk assessment,” Koehly says. For example, if you have a first-degree relative with type 2 diabetes, that puts you at increased risk for the condition.

However, if you do not have a first-degree relative with the condition, but you have two second-degree relatives with it, that can also increase your risk. “Having extra information beyond the immediate family is important," Koehly says. 

Reducing Your Risk

When you see your family's health information mapped out—health conditions, diseases, and causes of death—you might start to notice patterns. For example, you might learn about new conditions to watch out for, or note certain behaviors or problems that continuously crop up.

Gillian Hooker, PhD, president of the National Society of Genetic Counselors

We do know that when people seek out genetic testing and take measures to reduce the risk of cancer, it can save their life.

— Gillian Hooker, PhD, president of the National Society of Genetic Counselors

The knowledge can motivate people to improve their diet or exercise regimen, or schedule earlier-than-usual screenings for certain diseases, such as breast or colorectal cancer. It can also help them decide whether they’d like to seek genetic counseling.

Statistics on how helpful a family health history project could be are hard to come by. That said, Gillian Hooker, PhD, president of the National Society of Genetic Counselors, tells Verywell that “We do know that when people seek out genetic testing and take measures to reduce the risk of cancer, it can save their life.”

Gathering Your Family's Health History

National Family Health History Day takes place on Thanksgiving because it's a day that families usually get together. While you might not be in the same room as your family members this year, you can still talk to them over the phone, on a Zoom call, or even send them an email.

If you're feeling like it would be awkward to discuss disease and death with family at the holidays (or any time of year for that matter) you're not alone. For some families, conversations between certain family members can be tense even without asking probing questions.

Fortunately, experts have a few tips on how to effectively take your family's health history.

Explain Why It's Important

Understanding the purpose of the project will help motivate family members to contribute and so will appreciating its long-term effects. “It’s not just about our own risks, but also those of our family members,” Koehly says. “It’s a document for future generations.” 

Use Online Tools

You can simply keep a notebook or electronic document of everyone in your family and their health conditions. You can also try the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's toolkit called My Family Health Portrait.

The tool guides you through recording information about your own health and the health of your blood relatives. This could include listing their conditions and how old they were when they were diagnosed. Then, you can send the form to your relatives privately. None of your personal information is saved on the site itself. 

Gather Information One-on-One

Launching your family health history project doesn’t have to be a big announcement at the table. Instead, Hooker says that it can be a conversation you have one-on-one—for example, with an aunt via Skype or on a walk with your grandmother. 

Make It Part of a Family History Project

Even if you're not collecting everyone's health history formally at the table, you can still pay attention to the family conversation and gather information. Ask your family members about their lives and the lives of their relatives. Write down the information afterward, so you have a record.

“It’s the older generation who are often the most knowledgeable," Koehly says. "We want to learn from their wisdom before we no longer can hear it from them."

You might start with questions like: “What was it like when you were young? What did you enjoy doing?” As you’re having these conversations, ask your relatives what it was like when their parents got older and whether they had any health concerns. “We can find ways to capture information about their health through family stories,” Koehly says.

Give People Time

Even if you start the project on Family Health History Day, you don’t have to finish the project on Thanksgiving. It’s a good time to introduce it, and relatives can use the days and weeks that follow to gather the information, whether it’s with the CDC’s toolkit or a document that you created.

Don't Get Frustrated By What You Don't Know

In some cases, it might be impossible to fill in all the blanks. For example, if your family has members who were adopted, those medical records might be closed. Other members might be estranged from the family or died without any kind of record to pass on.

Some people choose to investigate publicly available medical reports or take commercial genetic tests. Keep in mind that commercial tests such as 23andMe or AncestryHealth do not cover everything.

It's also OK to just leave things blank. Gather as much as you can. “When you don’t know certain information, it just adds uncertainty,” Hooker says. It doesn’t mean that what you have collected isn’t helpful.

Let People Opt-In—Or Out

You may think you know the most about your favorite aunt, but your sister may have tidbits of information, too. We all have our own special relationships with different members of the family, but everyone has the potential to contribute.

Hooker points out that “some people are more open to talking and tracking down key information." Invite them to help fill in the blanks. Others may not, and that’s also fine. 

What This Means For You

Collecting your family health history can be a challenge, especially with limited holiday gatherings this year. Still, take the time this year—even if it's remote—to gather a family health history and learn about the health trends in your immediate and extended family. Make sure to document and regularly update your discoveries. That way, you can use them to lower disease risks for you and your family for years to come.

Using Your Family Health History

Think of your family health history document as a hands-on tool. You and family members can bring the document to your next medical check-up and discuss with your provider how you might want to adjust your health habits or schedule your health screenings to account for any higher health risks.

You can also do some preventive self-care by checking out the National Human Genome Research Institute’s Families SHARE page. Here, you can get an idea of your risk for common genetic diseases, as well as tips on reducing your risk.

Use your family health history records to discover healthy habits that worked well for your family and try to fit them into your own lifestyle.

You might also discover some positive trends in your family health history. For example, you may discover that your ancestors lived well into their nineties or that you're from a family of runners.

Your family health portrait as a living document. Get into the habit of adding information on an annual basis or any time you connect with loved ones. “Though conversations about relatives' health may be difficult, when done the right way, they can be fun, and create a family history that includes health information for generations to share.”

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Article Sources
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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Family health history. Updated October 3, 2019.

  2. National Human Genome Research Institute. Whole genome association studies. Updated July 15, 2011.