How and why to gather your family health history this Thanksgiving

You can use the conversation at Thanksgiving as an opportunity to review your family medical history. (Thinkstock)

My favorite autumn month is November, because I enjoy Thanksgiving. It’s not just about the food for me (though that plays a large part) — it’s about the gathering with friends and family.

As a mother, I look forward to this time when all hands are on deck. In my kitchen, my children are right next to me helping prepare desserts, while my spouse and I work on the main courses. The aroma of fresh baked rolls and pecan pie makes it easy to sit and savor this home-cooked meal. And as we sit down to a delicious feast, I catch up with my extended family and friends and am often reminded of the events that affected them over the past year.

Since my tablemates know I’m a family physician, the conversation eventually comes to center around their medical issues. Every year I discover little tidbits of family history — things I never knew that have the potential to affect me and my children.

Due to my medical training, I can separate the wheat from the chaff of their stories — the chaff that invariably results after a high-carb meal and glass of cabernet — and gather a medical family history. A family history, in medical terms, is a history of illnesses or chronic conditions that family members tend to acquire or develop. Being able to provide a thorough family history to your doctor will help him or her assess your risk for certain diseases, and eventually help you find the right treatment.

[See: 17 Ways Heart Health Varies in Women and Men.]

Even people without a medical background can use Thanksgiving, or any family gathering for that matter, as an opportunity to properly review their family history.

It’s helpful for people to be aware of the complete history of all their first- and second-degree relatives, which include those who share either 25 or 50 percent of your genetic makeup. Parents, siblings and offspring are included as first-degree relatives, and grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews are considered second-degree relatives. It’s important to know how old your relatives were when they were first diagnosed with a condition, and how old they were when they passed away from it.

While certain medical illnesses are transparent, and their details easily shared, others may be difficult to discuss. An example that many people find difficult to talk about is mental illness or alcoholism. In some families these conditions are stigmatized, so be sensitive to this and remember to ask questions in a non-threatening and nonjudgmental manner. Obtaining this information about your family is critical to developing your own medical history.

You can start the family health history conversation by asking if a family member has any long-term health problems, such as high blood pressure or diabetes. You should ask how old they were when they were diagnosed, and if they developed any complications from it. You’ll also want to find out if other family members died from it. Lastly, if you’re not already aware of this information, you should ask for your family’s country of origin, as certain illnesses are more prevalent in certain ethnic groups. Some combinations of illnesses, such as breast and ovarian cancer, may point to genetic mutations that can be found by screening in advance of symptoms.

[See: 5 Ways to Cope With Mild Cognitive Impairment.]

If your physician is aware of the age when certain illnesses tend to occur in your family, then they will be able to counsel you on what steps you can take to prevent this from occurring to you. Though not all diseases in your family are preventable, having this family history will allow your family physician to guide you on appropriate diet or lifestyle measures you can implement to prevent more serious complications that can arise from these medical issues.

If your family members have had success with a certain medication to treat their illness, you can use this opportunity to ask the name of the medication so you can discuss it with your doctor. Often the same medications can be a good option for multiple members of the same family. This is true of many antidepressants and anxiety pills.

[See: 8 Questions to Ask Your Doctor About Colon Cancer.]

Your family members may not agree on everything during Thanksgiving, such as who made the best dessert or who won the flag football match, but they can all agree that knowing about your health is important. And during the lengthy meal, you do need something to talk about, don’t you? So why not family health?

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How and Why to Gather Your Family Health History This Thanksgiving originally appeared on usnews.com