Learning your family's history this Thanksgiving

November 25, 2009 3:44:15 PM PST
Many of us will be surrounded by family this Thanksgiving, and health experts say it's an excellent time to take advantage of an important health practice - knowing your family's health history. So what should you ask?

You may not know this, but Thanksgiving is also our country's annual Family History Day. The nation's top doctor, the surgeon general, declared it so six years ago. So, it's the time when genetics doctors say to talk to the elders and learn what's in your history.

Sitting down to dinner with family is a experience we all cherish. But it can enrich us even more if we take the time to question and to listen. It's a time when we can gather information about our family's health past and learn about our own health risks.

"Thanksgiving is time when family comes together, so what better way to ask directly to the horse's mouth what each of your family member's has," said Dr. Charis Eng, of the Cleveland Clinic.

Dr. Eng says there are several red flags you should look for when gathering your family's health history. First is the number of family members. Look to see if more than one of them has developed a disease or condition over the years.

Next, Dr. Eng says check the relationship. How closely are they were related to you? And note the age. How young was the family member when the onset of the disease occurred?

Both the relative's age at the onset of disease and the degree of relationship are important in determining your own risk.

"When you have two first-degree relatives, in general, for most diseases, whether its heart disease or cancer, it does increase it twofold," Dr. Eng said. "And twofold is important, because that's when you should go see your physician or genetic counselor."

Diseases that run in families can be both rare or extremely common, like heart disease or cancer. High blood pressure, for example, can easily be found showing up in succeeding generations.

But knowing the illnesses suffered by parents, grandparents and other blood relatives can give your doctor information about your own risk factors. And it can help you know which preventive steps to take to keep you and your family healthy.

"Knowing a family history means you are forewarned, and forewarned means prevention," Dr. Eng said.

Keeping records is important. You can even draw a family tree and, if you CLICK HERE, you can link up to the surgeon general's Web site for help in charting your family's health record.

Good health is always something to be thankful for, but sometimes it takes a little bit of work to stay healthy.