Family Health History Day

Community Update - Week of November 13th, 2023
By: Dr. Cynthia Morrow, Health Director, Roanoke City and Alleghany Health Districts

Family members may share more than similar looks. Common health conditions such as heart disease, cancer, arthritis, dementia, asthma, and diabetes, as well as rare diseases such as hemophilia, cystic fibrosis, and sickle cell anemia can run in families. Family Health History Day, observed each year on Thanksgiving Day, serves as a reminder to talk with your loved ones about check-ups, including preventive screenings, and your family’s history of health conditions.

While a discussion with your family members about health problems and diseases may seem awkward at first, having and sharing this important information with your healthcare provider can help you take steps to protect your health. People who have a family history of certain diseases may have the most to gain from lifestyle changes and screening tests.

Consider starting one-on-one conversation with family members by sharing why you hope to gather the information. Let them know that everyone can benefit from more complete health histories. Young people may not realize the importance of hereditary factors that could cause trouble down the road. Older relatives may know more about family health conditions, especially in those relatives who are no longer living. For persons who are adopted, family health history information may have been shared during the adoption process.

The following steps may be helpful:

Ask It

Ask family members about what conditions they have or had, and at what age they were diagnosed with them. Talk about chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes; health conditions like high cholesterol or high blood pressure; where your ancestors are from; and the causes and ages of death of relatives from previous generations. Take a sensitive approach with family members who may not want to share all or certain parts of their health history. Let them know whatever information they can provide will be helpful.

Write It

Keep a record of the information you get from your family. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers a free tool, My Family Health Portrait, to organize the information and share it with your family and your healthcare provider.

Share It

Having a discussion with your healthcare professional about your family history can help you understand what that history means for you and may inform the timing and choice of certain screening tests. Sharing your family health information can also help guide the personal health decisions of other relatives.

Research shows that our overall health is strongly influenced by a combination of genetics, behaviors, and environmental factors. It is important to understand that having a genetic predisposition toward a condition does not mean we will necessarily develop that condition. Understanding the history of our family’s health allows us to be better informed, make smart decisions, and live healthier lives.