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Talking Turkey About Family Health

Nov. 19, 2015

Vol.13, Issue 11

You’ve probably sat in a health provider’s waiting room filling out paperwork, and all of a sudden you’re faced with unexpected questions about your family’s medical history. Do you have all the answers? I know that I’ve usually come up short because no one had told me (beyond the obvious) . . . and I had never asked.  Yet this is important information for your healthcare provider. When it comes to your health, there are risk factors you can change, and others you cannot.

It’s the time of year, when family get-togethers are on the horizon. Beyond all the shopping, cleaning, decorating (and home improvement projects), hosting duties, travel planning, cooking, and eating (!) there’s a hidden but vital opportunity to bring up important family business.

I was intrigued when I received this information from Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU), and immediately knew I wanted to share it with our readers.

Family History and Your Health:

What You and Your Children Need to Know

Since 2004, the US Surgeon General’s office has designated Thanksgiving as National Health History Day. As you gather around the table with family, it’s an opportune time to get the information straight from the source (and incidentally, to stay off the taboo topics of politics, religion and sex!)

Knowing your family health history gives you and your healthcare provider a chance to assess your risk for certain diseases and other health conditions. That’s also true for your children; and that history is something that only you can tell them. For all the generations, if there is a concern and your provider knows about it, she or he can help suggest preventive screenings, lifestyle changes or other recommendations to help you and your family in generations to come live a long and healthy life.

OHSU’s Jen Edman, M.D., M.P.H., a primary care physician in the Center for Women’s Health has offered some helpful tips on how to get started, what questions to ask and what tools you can use to record the information so it’s useful to you and your healthcare provider. Here are some of her suggestions:

Getting Started

Dr. Edman suggests starting by sharing the importance of why you’re asking and how having the answers will be valuable for everyone involved in the conversation. Or you could start by sharing a bit of your own health information to encourage others to feel more comfortable opening up. The most important relatives to include are your parents, siblings and children – then your grandparents, uncles, aunts and half-siblings.

Ask the Right Questions

Think about what you already know about your family and start there. Dr. Edman suggests starting with the following questions

  • What is our family’s ancestry? What countries did we come from?
  • Do we have a history of cancer (particularly ovarian, colon, breast, or skin cancer (melanoma)) in our family? If so, who was diagnosed and at what age?
  • Do other chronic diseases, such as heart disease or diabetes, or health conditions such as asthma, allergies, high blood pressure or high cholesterol run in our family? If so, who suffers from them and at what age were they diagnosed?
  • Do we have any known genetic disorders (such as cystic fibrosis, Tay-Sachs, Marfan syndrome or sickle-cell anemia)?
  • Ask the women in your family – at what age did you start menstruating and at what age did you reach menopause?
  • Does anyone have a severe reaction to medication?
  • For relatives who have died, be sure to ask about cause and age of death.

Record Your Information

The Surgeon General’s office offers a free online tool called My Family Health Portrait to help you and your family track your health history. MyFamilyHistoryWebsite copyYou can enter your family health history, learn about your risk for diseases that tend to run in families, share your information with your family members or healthcare providers and save your history so you can update it over time – and pass the information to future generations. They also have a great FAQ section that answers questions about privacy, sharing, and how to get help filling out your profile. Even if you don’t have a family gathering in your future, it’s a good idea to get started on your profile today and share it with the family.

Remember that even if a certain disease or condition runs in your family; it doesn’t necessarily mean that you or other family members will get that disease. Talk with your healthcare provider about your family health history and your individual risk profile for genetic diseases and conditions.

And remember that a healthy lifestyle also benefits everyone in your family; so take the opportunity of togetherness to get out of the house and do something good for all — like taking that walk after dinner!

My Gratefulness Meter

In the wake of recent devastating world events, and all of the bad news it seems we’re bombarded with every day, my gratefulness meter goes up, not down. It makes me feel ever more grateful and appreciative that I live in a warm, dry home, with plenty of good food, a loving husband (and beagle), family and friends who support me in good times and bad. I live in the United States, where I get to choose what I do, and how I make a living. I get to do good in the world, connecting speakers I enjoy and respect with people who benefit from their inspiration, expertise, trials and triumphs. I’m grateful for electricity, clean running water, and electronic devices that keep me connected (most of the time), and entertained. I’m grateful for the bounty of nature that surrounds and feeds me.

As I write this, I realize that I could go on and on. Instead, I invite you to take some time every day to check in with your own gratefulness meter.

I trust your Thanksgiving is filled with the people, things, and experiences that bring you joy, fulfillment and gratitude. Until next time, take care of yourself for your well being and those you love.

Yours truly,


P.S.  In case you’re wondering, the family photo above is not from my family archives . . .

For Your Well Being is published bi-weekly. We bring you insider speaker reports, exclusive stories about special events around the country, meeting planner tips, and fun stuff from the worlds of health and well being. Be well and be in the know!

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