Perhaps you have heard that Thanksgiving Day has been declared a “National Day of Listening” by the StoryCorps project.
StoryCorps has recorded hundreds of thousands of Americans interviewing each other, with the rich history of these conversations archived at the Library of Congress.
StoryCorps aims to encourage families gathered for the Thanksgiving holiday to record interviews with each other, using a handy app available on computer and smartphone devices. What an outstanding way to learn about your unique family history.
Whether or not you participate in the National Day of Listening, Thanksgiving Day is also a wonderful opportunity to learn about your family health history.
For many years, this has been the aim of the U.S. Surgeon General’s Family Health History Initiative. In fact, in 2004 the surgeon general declared Thanksgiving to be National Family Health History Day.
For many diseases, risk is determined not only by individual lifestyle choices and environmental exposures but also (and in some instances only) by genetics. Family history of health and disease offers a useful clue to disease risk.
The surgeon general points out that there are genetic components to common diseases such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease as well as rarer diseases such as hemophilia, cystic fibrosis and sickle cell disease. Family health history is an important tool used by doctors to screen for disease risk.
A family history of breast or colon cancer, for instance, can alter screening recommendations, with earlier screening linked to better health outcomes.
A recent survey showed that while 96 percent of Americans believe that knowing family health history is important, only about one-third of us take the opportunity to gather the information and write it down.
The surgeon general has created a Web-based tool to make gathering this information, recording it and communicating it to your doctor all much easier. It is called the “My Family Health Portrait” tool, and it can be accessed at www.familyhistory.hhs.gov.
The tool includes useful guidance about how to collect and record family health information. It begins with making a list of close blood relatives and finding a good time to talk with them. Holiday gatherings may provide a unique opportunity to see not only close relatives such as parents and siblings but also extended family members.
Compiling a list of questions in advance is wise, and the website offers many useful examples. Because many people are private about their health information, it is important to explain your purpose and then respect boundaries.
Keeping a record of family health history makes it easier to complete the online tool, with a printable version that you can share with your doctor as well as with other family members.
Consider taking time this holiday to learn more about your family’s history. Not only can it enrich your relationships, it may also improve your health.
Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics practicing at the Ute Mountain Ute Health Center in Towaoc.