In 2004, the surgeon general designated Thanksgiving as National Family Health History Day.
If you’re lucky enough to be with relatives on this day of gratitude, it’s easy to see why. The same mischievous smile on your grandfather’s face lights up the face of your son. Your cousins all share the family nose. And your bright eyes? Those came from your mother, who got them from her mother, whose grandmother came across the ocean from the old country, where those same bright eyes enchanted the man who would later become her husband.
Whatever our family story is, we live with the genetic outcomes every day. And we pass it on to our own children.
Understanding the history of our family’s health lets us anticipate health issues, make smart decisions, and live healthier lives.
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Common diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, as well as rare diseases like hemophilia, cystic fibrosis, and sickle cell anemia, can run in families. We acquire these types of non-communicable diseases through a matrix of environmental and genetic factors.
The most common genetic diseases include:
In some cases, as the World Health Organization points out, individuals are born with genes that are altered by lifestyle habits or exposure to chemicals. In the example of cancer, tumor suppressor genes lose their function and the body develops carcinomas. Other diseases are more prevalent to specific ethnic communities. For example, African communities tend to have strokes as a result of cardiovascular disease, while people from South Asia are prone to heart attacks.
You can’t change your genes. But if you know your risks, you can alert your doctor and adapt your lifestyle to avoid health problems.
Only 33 percent of Americans have ever tried to write down their family’s health history, even though we know family health history is a powerful screening tool.
To solve this knowledge gap, the surgeon general partnered with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and other agencies to create the web-based Family Health Portrait Tool.
The Family Health Portrait Tool helps you organize your family history information and print it for your doctor. You can save your family history information on your own computer and share that information with other relatives.
This Thanksgiving, or the next time you’re gathered with family, talk about your health. Ask your parents or grandparents about any health problems they have — and be sure to take notes and bring it up with your doctor on your next visit.