Feasting on a turkey dinner and watching football may be the usual Thanksgiving traditions, but health officials want Americans to add collecting the family’s health history to the holiday celebration.
Holidays, when extended families gather, offer an opportunity to discuss and write down health problems that tend to run in the family. Every year since 2004, the Office of the Surgeon General has declared Thanksgiving as National Family History Day.
According to the Surgeon General, a recent survey found that 96 percent of Americans agree that knowing their family health history is important. But just a third of those surveyed had ever tried to gather and write down their own family’s history.
Tracing the illnesses that have affected several generations within a family can help doctors to diagnose or predict disorders in younger relatives, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common diseases such as cancer and diabetes can run in families, as well as rarer conditions including hemophilia and cystic fibrosis.
“Simple conversations with and between family members is essential to physicians doing their job to take good care of patients and can effectively direct workups of patients in a more cost-effective manner,” said Dr. Sheila Pinette, director of the Maine CDC.
Knowing a child’s family health history can reveal whether a child is at increased risk for disease, which could prompt a doctor to suggest screening tests and develop a plan to prevent or delay the disease. Many genetic disorders first appear in childhood, even chronic diseases typically associated with adults, such as heart disease, according to the CDC.
Just because a child’s family has a history of a certain disease doesn’t necessarily mean the child will develop it, however.
How do you know whether an illness or condition is serious enough to write down? Health officials apply the 3-2-1 rule. Mention the medical condition to a doctor if:
• Three blood relatives on the same side of the family have had the same disorder.
• At least two closely related relatives (sibling, parent, child) have had the same disorder.
• At least one relative was affected at a young age (such as under 50 for most types of cancer.)
The Surgeon General has created a computerized tool to help families record their health histories. Called “My Family Health Portrait,” the online program helps users organize the information, print it out to show their doctor, save the history and share it with relatives.
Pinette suggested Mainers store an up-to-date medical record in their wallet and in their freezer — including family history, medications with the dose and schedule, and known drug allergies — to help paramedics, health care providers and police better respond to emergencies.
Federal health officials offer these tips in collecting your child’s family health history:
• Record the names of your child’s close relatives from both sides of the family: parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews. Include conditions each relative has or had and at what age the conditions were first diagnosed. For deceased relatives, include the cause of death and the age at death.
• Discuss family health history concerns with your child’s doctor. Families considering having another child should share family health history information with the mother’s doctor.
• Update your child’s family health history information regularly and share new information with your child’s doctor. Remember that relatives can be newly diagnosed with conditions between doctor’s visits.