It’s not all about the turkey this year
Gather family health information when you’re gathered around the table.
Wesley Roberts Published: 11/20/2018
The smell of roasted turkey and bubbling mac and cheese fill the house, already full of family from all over, gathered together to celebrate Thanksgiving Day. We know the questions we expect to hear: “How are the kids doing?” and “How are Grandma and Grandpa?” but this year, we encourage you to bring up new questions about family health history.
Did you know Thanksgiving Day is also National Family Health History Day? Each year since 2004, the U.S. Surgeon General has promoted this national observance as an opportunity for people to talk about, and to write down, health problems that may run in the family to help them better prepare for a healthier future.
Aristides Sastre, MD, family physician with Baptist Primary Care, agrees it may be a tough topic to bring up over the holiday. “A lot of family members keep their health history private or they’re not used to bringing it up over the dinner table,” he said. “However, make sure to tell your family you’re just trying to gain a better picture of your overall health.”
The key ingredients
“It’s so valuable to know your family health history,” said Patricia Calhoun, MD, FAAFP, family physician with Baptist Primary Care. “You can’t change your genetics but you can change your lifestyle to maintain your best health.”
For example, if your family has a history of heart disease, your primary care physician may recommend that you quit smoking, maintain moderate activity level and eat less saturated fat. If women in your family have had breast cancer, your doctor may recommend that you start getting mammograms earlier and more frequently. Knowing your family’s health history can help your primary care physician make recommendations based on factors you can control.
When talking to your relatives, pay close attention to the following in family history:
- Cancers that have a higher genetic predisposition such as breast, ovarian, prostate, etc.
- Heart disease, especially in a male relative younger than 55 and/or a female relative younger than 65
- Autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, celiac disease, thyroid disease, etc.
- Blood abnormalities such as sickle cell, frequent blood clots, miscarriages, etc.
- Mental health disorders
"Unfortunately, I have quite a few patients who know their family members had cancer but they don’t know what kind. Specific details are key because some cancers have a higher genetic predisposition than others,” said Dr. Sastre. He added that knowing the age of onset is one of the most critical elements of information to collect.
In addition to knowing family history, this Preventative Health Scorecard can help determine if your screenings meet recommendations for your age group, helping to lessen risks for certain health issues.
Dr. Calhoun always asks patients, “What sort of things do you have to worry about with your health? Which diseases or illnesses are in your family that I may not know about?” She said these are the same questions you can ask your family members.
Other questions to ask:
- What do I need to know about our family health history to best prepare for the future?
- How/why did previous family members pass away? What was their age? What were their lifestyle habits (smoking, activity level, etc.)?
- Are there any records available?
- Any hospital records, discharge summaries, surgical records for relatives will help you collect detailed data that could benefit other family members as well.
When gathering information about relatives, aim for at least three generations of information. However, first-degree relatives are the most important. Ask about the health histories of siblings, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles and first cousins.
Wondering how to keep track of all of this information? The My Baptist Connect Patient Portal, a secure website you can use to collect your personal health care information, has a section for family history. Print out these notes and bring them to each of your doctor’s appointments. This record will help you stay organized and provide updated and consistent information to each of your physicians.
It’s in your genes
Over the past few years, at-home DNA genetic testing and ancestry test kits ( i.e., 23andMe, AncestryDNA™, etc.) have become extremely popular.
Dr. Sastre gives a “heads up” to people utilizing these DNA services, “These tests seem interesting but I always recommend having a specialist explain the meaning of certain health conditions uncovered in family history.” Though they may seem fun, they can uncover some pretty critical information when it comes to health history.
The most accurate way to gather information about your genetic health, other than talking to your family, is to talk to your doctor about whether additional gene testing is right for you. Genetic counseling is recommended for people undergoing genetic testing to help patients understand what the results could mean for your health.
Happy and healthy? Great!
Even if your family has trends of genetic conditions, it doesn’t mean you are guaranteed to develop one of them. Still, you should work with your doctor to make a personalized plan of preventative efforts. It can be as simple as wearing sunscreen to prevent skin cancer, getting vaccines to prevent disease and participating in regular screenings for cancer.
After your tummy is full this holiday season, talk about the past to help you better prepare for the future.
If you’re in good health, celebrate and be thankful this holiday season. If you discover there are areas that need more attention or you find out new information in your family history, contact your primary care physician to develop a customized care plan. If you need a primary care doctor, visit baptistjax.com/bpc to find one near you.