Every November we wish each other a Happy Thanksgiving and express our gratitude for the important things in our lives like friends, family, and good health. Though we often overindulge in foods that probably aren’t beneficial to our health during this time of year there is one thing you can do this holiday season to promote wellness – gather a family health history.
Since 2004, the U.S Surgeon General has designated Thanksgiving as National Family Health History Day. Health problems like heart disease, cancer and certain genetic issues often run along family lines. Having a family history of a disease often means that family members have an increased likelihood of developing the same illness. However, having a tendency for a disease doesn’t mean that you’re certain to develop it. Often interventions like exercise, diet or medications can help ward off disease and keep an individual healthy. But in order to intervene, patients and their healthcare professionals need to know what they’re up against. So now that you’ve divvied up all your Thanksgiving leftovers, it’s a good time to talk about and write down health issues that run in the family and create a family health history.
It’s never too early to start collecting a family health history. While I was pregnant, I was able to undergo a non-invasive test to see if I was a carrier for genetic abnormalities like Fragile X and Cystic Fibrosis. This was a new test not available a few years ago and it would be wise to have it performed before a woman becomes pregnant so she can be aware of the risks and treatment options.
The CDC encourages pregnant women and those considering pregnancy to know her and the baby’s father’s family health histories to help decrease or discover health issues. The agency says family health histories are valuable in early detection of genetic disorders in children. Young adults can benefit from early screening based on family history.
- Writing down the names of blood relatives in your history. The most important relatives to include are your parents, brothers, sisters, and your children. You many also want to speak with grandparents, aunts and uncles.
- Ask your family members’ ages and birthdays.
- Find out if they have any chronic conditions like heart disease or diabetes. Also ask if they have any serious illness or diseases like cancer or stroke and how old they were when they developed an illness.
- Ask if anyone has had problems with pregnancies or childbirth, or if there are any birth defects or developmental disabilities in the family.
- Know what countries your family originated from as this can help detect genetic diseases that occur in certain ethnic groups.
To organize and access your family health history you can use the Surgeon General’s web-based tool My Family Health Portrait. It collects your information and creates a “pedigree” that can be downloaded and saved privately. You can share the information with your family and your healthcare provider.
It’s often said that if you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything. Take advantage of the holiday’s family togetherness and get your family health history together.
Jennifer Thew, RN, MSJ
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