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Give Thanks and Share Family Health History

Last updated: November 23, 2021

It’s finally the holiday season, and many are gearing up to visit their family members for Thanksgiving. As you gather to express gratitude for your blessings and one another, you might want to consider yet another special occasion: National Family Health History Day. If you’ve never taken the time to discuss your family health history, what better opportunity than when you’re all gathered together in person?

Family Health History Significance 

You may have noticed that your doctor asks for your family health history each time you visit. Do you have a family history of high blood pressure? What about cancer? Does anyone in your family have a chronic disease? These and other questions fill your intake paperwork and are likely discussion topics during your appointment.  

You may not realize the importance of your family’s health history. The fact is, you are at a higher risk to develop certain diseases and conditions if your family members have experienced them.  

For example, if one of your parents had heart disease, your risk of developing heart disease increases up to 75%. Have a sibling with heart disease? Your risk increases by 40%.  

“If you have family members with medical conditions, you may be wondering which family members’ health histories are most relevant to your own health,” says Dr. Lloyd Cassidy, a Family Medicine Specialist at ThedaCare Physicians-Shawano. “Focus your energy on learning more about the health of your parents, siblings, and grandparents, versus the health history of distant relatives.” 

When your doctor knows family health history, they can further personalize your care to reduce your risk of some conditions and stay mindful of related symptoms. This leads to better care for you and the potential for better health outcomes.  

Hereditary Diseases 

It may be overwhelming trying to understand which diseases genetics impacts. Certain diseases and conditions can’t be passed down. These include infectious diseases that are transmitted through external influences.  

For example, conditions like Lyme disease and endocarditis aren’t inherited. Similarly, the flu, meningitis, and whooping cough are acute infectious diseases that aren’t passed down from family members. Chronic diseases like HIV/AIDS, chronic hepatitis, and human papilloma virus (HPV) also are not associated with genetic risk.  

“A family history of any non-communicable disease might be hereditary,” Dr. Cassidy says. “These include diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, for example. If you have a parent, sibling, or grandparent with a disease or condition of this sort, you may be at heightened risk of developing it yourself.” 

Other factors also affect risk. These include the type of disease and the age at which your family members were diagnosed. For example, your risk of breast cancer increases significantly if you have a family history of the disease. This is especially true if the affected family member was younger than 50 when diagnosed. In fact, up to 10% of breast cancer cases are inherited. 

Family Medical History Essentials 

Understanding your family’s health history can help you and your family members take a proactive approach to improving and maintaining health. At the same time, it can be an overwhelming or uncomfortable conversation. You’ll need to ask direct questions, but remember that doing so benefits everyone. We suggest starting with the following questions: 

  • Is there a history of cancer in our family? What kind? 
  • Does anyone have a heart condition? 
  • Has anyone been diagnosed with diabetes? 
  • Are you getting annual checkups to maintain and monitor your health? 
  • Have any of our family members died due to heart disease, stroke, or a chronic disease? 

“Cancer, diabetes, and heart disease should be a focus of your conversation. They are among the most common causes of death for people in the United States,” Dr. Cassidy says. “In fact, heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States.”  

Reduce Your Risk 

Here’s the good news. Family history of a disease doesn’t make it an inevitable part of your future. In fact, you can reduce your risk for many of the diseases that run in your family through simple lifestyle choices

“Smoking increases your risk of heart disease, cancer, stroke, and many other diseases. If you’re a smoker, prioritize quitting,” Dr. Cassidy says. “Reducing your alcohol intake, maintaining a healthy weight, and staying active can all significantly lower your risk of many chronic diseases.” 

Once you’ve identified the diseases that run in your family, it’s important to discuss them with your doctor. They can monitor your health for signs and symptoms of diseases that run in your family. They can also help you develop a strategy of reducing your risk of developing disease.  

So, as you gather with family this week, make it a point to share more than a meal. Equipping each other with the information needed to make educated care and lifestyle choices increases the likelihood that the entire family can enjoy many gatherings to come.

Get the most out of your family health history. Enter it into the Ripple by ThedaCare app, and you’ll receive personalized care recommendations and reminders to help you minimize your risk. 

Tags: family health history genetics holidays

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