Talk Turkey: Sharing Health History

Joyful members of a multiracial family enjoying a holiday dinner. A son is talking with his mother in the foreground.

As you gather around the festive tables this holiday season, share more than heartwarming stories and cherished recipes. Seize this unique opportunity to share family health history. It’s a conversation that can improve the lives of your loved ones and yourself.

Family history might be one of the strongest determiners of risk for developing heart disease, stroke, diabetes, or cancer. Many conditions can be inherited, and families often share environments, lifestyles, and habits. Although genes cannot be changed, knowing about a higher risk can translate into better healthcare planning and management. Some ways people can act include:

  • Earlier screenings for diseases or conditions.
  • Genetic counseling for prevention and early detection.
  • Behavior modification like restricting foods or adding exercise for reducing probability.

So, how can you bring up family health history without turning the celebration into a letdown? Here are three conversation starters to get people to talk.

  1. I want to know more about our family history. Where did our ancestors come from and how did our family get settled in the U.S.?
  2. What’s your best advice for growing old? What are some ways you cope with aging and chronic conditions that come along with it? (If appropriate, ask for details about any conditions.)
  3. My New Year’s resolution is going to focus on my health, including medical screenings. Have you had any done that I should also have? What should I expect? (If possible, gently find out if it was routine screening or done for a specific worry.)

These questions can help illuminate whether there is any genetic predisposition to specific diseases, what types of illnesses loved ones live with, and whether people had concerns or actual diagnoses.

After absorbing your family’s health history, make sure to act. Write down what you’ve discovered for future reference and share with family members. The Surgeon General has a free web-based tool called My Family Health Portrait to help organize and easily distribute details. Make a practice of updating your documentation when new health details are shared.

Also, talk with your doctor about what you learn – especially if there is a disease or condition you are particularly concerned about. They can look at your current health and family health history to evaluate risk as well as recommend screenings or monitoring.

People love to talk about themselves, particularly with a family member who cares about their health. November 28 is National Family Health History Day. Make a plan: Talk turkey about family health to protect your own health and start a dialogue that others can learn from.