Thursday, November 1, 2012

Family History & Your Health: National Family History Day

By Martha Hunt, MA CAMF
Robert E. Bush Naval Hospital

Each year since 2004, the US Surgeon General has declared Thanksgiving to be National Family History Day. Over the holiday or whenever families gather together, the Surgeon General encourages Americans to talk about and write down the health problems that seem to run in their family. Learning about your family's health history may help ensure a longer, healthier future for you and your loved ones.

Why create your own family health portrait? Knowing your family’s health history can save your life and the lives of those you love. By knowing what illnesses blood relatives suffered can help your doctor predict some of the health problems that may face you or your family.

To help you organize your family’s health information, the U.S. Surgeon General has developed an online tool called “My Family Health Portrait”, which is available at You may use this tool online or it can be printed and used as a paper record of your family’s health. If you chose to use the online tool to record your family medical history, the information you place there is private. Before you start using this tool, however, you will need to talk with your family members to gather more details about their health histories. Here are some suggestions on how talk to your family about their health.

Make a list of relatives. Write down the names of the blood relatives that you need to include in your family health history. Talking to people who are related to you by marriage and not by blood doesn’t help you plan your health history. The most important relatives to talk to are your parents, brothers and sisters, and your children. Next should be your grandparents, uncles and aunts, nieces and nephews, and any half-brothers or half-sisters. It is also helpful to talk to great uncles and great aunts, as well as cousins if they are available.

Prepare your questions ahead of time. Writing out your questions ahead of time will help you to remember what you need to ask and will keep you on track during the conversation. Among the questions to ask are - Do you have any chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, high blood pressure or diabetes? Have you had any other serious illnesses, such as cancer or stroke? How old were you when you developed these illnesses? Have you or your partner had any difficulties with pregnancies, such as miscarriages? What medications are you currently taking?

Also ask questions about other relatives, both living and deceased, such as - What is our family’s ancestry? What country did we come from? Has anyone in the family had learning or developmental disabilities? What illnesses did our late grandparents have? How old were they when they died? What caused their deaths?

Find a good time to talk. Consider talking with your family when you are together in a relaxed setting such as family reunions, cookouts or holidays such as Thanksgiving. If it’s not possible to talk to your family in person, you talk with them over the telephone or send them questions by mail or e-mail.

Explain to your family what you are doing. Begin your conversation by explaining that learning more about your family health history can help save lives. When you are aware of what diseases or conditions run in your family you may be able to avoid the health problem by taking preventive measures. Let your family know that the information they share about their individual health histories will help you create a Family Health Portrait that will benefit the entire family.

Keep a record. Remember to bring along a pencil and paper, voice recorder or a laptop so you can take down the information that your family members tell you. That way you will have their health information handy when you sit down to create My Family Health Portrait online or to fill out the paper version.

Ask one question at a time. It will be easier for your family members to provide you with useful information if you keep your questions short and to the point. If you need more details, ask follow-up questions such as “why,”“how” or “when.” Try to get as much specific information as possible. This will be especially important for your elderly family members who may have memory issues.

Respect your family’s feelings. Some family members may not want to share their health information. Be sensitive to their feelings and let them know that whatever information they wish to provide will be helpful. Your family member has the right to privacy and may choose not to participate.

Take one step at a time. If during your talks, you find out about a serious health problem that you didn’t know existed in your family don’t panic. Create your Family Health Portrait, print it off if you created it online and then take it to your health care provider who can help you understand what the information means for you and your family.

Filling in the gaps. For family members who are deceased or for whom you have incomplete health information, try asking other family members for information. If it is possible, get copies of medical records, birth records or death certificates as added documentation. Different states have different regulations as to who has access to birth and death records.

Keep your family’s health history up-to-date. As children are born and family members develop illnesses, remember to add that information to your Family Health Portrait. Your family will thank you!


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