Next week is Thanksgiving (already?). My family is descending on my house to enjoy time together, veggies, pie, and Tofurky (that’s how we roll). The country’s Surgeon General, Regina Benjamin, will mark the day as the seventh annual “National Family Health History Day,” to encourage all American families to learn more about their family health history.
Here are three reasons why it’s useful to know your family health history:
1. Because we all know that diseases can “run in the family”
Most of us are marginally aware that family history can play a role in many common diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers. Some of us think about our grandfather's heart attack before we eat that cheesesteak. And we've all completed the form at doctor’s offices - the chart where you put check marks to link diseases with your family members. The reason doctors collect this information is because it gives them a quick glimpse into the disease history within our families, which they then use to consider our risk of developing certain diseases.
Every day, the family history is used by physicians to assess disease risk, determine whether screening is required, and help us understand our risks of passing diseases to our own children. It’s valuable information, worth collecting.
And knowing our history can help us change our habits. In my case, my grandfather’s early death from heart disease and my mother’s high cholesterol were factors in my decision to become a vegetarian. Knowing the truth about the family’s health is often enough to compel many people to change smoking, drinking, diet, and exercise habits.
2. Because it’s proven that family history is the best predictor of disease risk
The concept of a disease “running in the family” is real. A study last year found that a family health history is better at predicting disease risk than genomic screening: http://abcnews.go.com/Health/Wellness/family-history-predictor-disease-risk-genomic-screening/story?id=12055615
In his book The Language of Life, geneticist (and HHS head) Francis Collins writes that “family health history turns out to be the strongest of all currently measurable risk factors for many common conditions, incorporating as it does information about both hereditary and shared environment…Surely the kind of information you and your doctor should know and incorporate into your own health care.”
The bit about “shared environment” is especially key – not only do we share genes with our family, but we tend to live with or near our families (at least some of them). So regardless of whether a disease’s cause is hereditary or environmental, the history can tell us a lot.
3. Because it’s easy
Whether by jotting down a note that Aunt Edna died of breast cancer, or using more sophisticated paper or web-based tools to collect your family health history, or going all the way with personal genetic services like 23andMe, many people now are taking their health information into their own hands, assembling, recording, and saving their family health history for the benefit of their own health and that of their family members. Because it’s easy, and because it makes sense.
While you’re chowing down next Thursday, expressing thanks for all you have and are, take a couple of minutes to gather your family’s health history. It’s a simple way to understand the story of your own health.
Here are some ways and means to do so:
Mayo Clinic: Compiling your medical family tree – basics on how and why to collect the history
The Surgeon General’s My Family Health Portrait - an online tool that lets you track, print, and save your family’s health history. P.S.-5AM developed this tool
It Runs in My Family - another online genetic tool
Family Helix - a nonprofit, provides an online way to track and store your family's health history
Genetic Alliance’s Guide to Family Health History/Guide to Understanding Genetics and Health - booklets provide information and resources on the topic
CDC’s http://www.cdc.gov/Features/FamilyHealthHistory/ - covers the basics on how and when to collect you family’s history (...Thanksgiving!)
NHGRI’s Drawing Your Family Tree - describes how to create your own pedigree chart (a great visual expression of diseases in a family)
Happy Thanksgiving from 5AM--Share stories, thoughts and comments, on family history or Tofurkey, by commenting below.
-Leslie Power, 5AM Solutions