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National Family History Day- Thanksgiving Day
Release Date: October 17, 2012

As families gather over the holidays or at other times, the Surgeon General encourages Americans to talk about, and to write down, the health problems that run in their family.

County of Sussex
Department of Environmental and Public Health Services
Office of Public Health Nursing

National Family History Day- Thanksgiving Day

The Surgeon General has declared Thanksgiving to be National Family History Day since 2004. As families gather over the holidays or at other times, the Surgeon General encourages Americans to talk about, and to write down, the health problems that run in their family. Learning about your family's health history may help ensure a longer, healthier future together according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

We all know that eating a healthy diet, getting plenty of exercise, and not smoking can reduce our risk of disease and other health issues. But did you know that your family health history might be one of the best ways of determining your risk for developing cancer, diabetes, stroke, and/or heart disease later in life? We cannot change our genetic makeup, but knowing your family health history can help you reduce your risk of developing health problems. Not only is this a useful screening tool for understanding health risks, but also by possibly preventing diseases and conditions in the future. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 96% of Americans believe that family history is important to health but only about 30% have tried to collect the information.

What is a family health history?

A family health history is a written or graphic record of illnesses and/or medical conditions affecting your family members. A family medical history can help your doctor interpret the history of disease in your family and identify patterns that may be relevant to your own health. A family history cannot predict your future health; it can provide information about risks and influence early detection and prevention strategies. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, "a useful family health history shows three generations of your biological relatives, the age at diagnosis, and the age and cause of death of deceased family members."

How do you go about obtaining a family history?

Start by asking questions through face-to-face interviews with family members at gatherings, like holidays or reunions. Ask grandparents/parents about deceased members, if possible, and write down the information. Also, look at death certificates and family medical records, if possible. Collect information about your grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, siblings, and children. Organize the information into a detailed family tree or pedigree so you can visualize how traits are grouped within families and moving through generations. Be aware not everyone, however, may be comfortable disclosing their personal medical information. So, explain your purpose for creating the history, ask short to the point questions, be a good listener, and respect their right to confidentiality. To help in developing such a tool, visit the Surgeon General's internet-based "My Family Health Portrait" at https://familyhistory.hhs.gov  or organize your own after the information has been collected.

What type of information do you write down on a health history?

For each individual family member, include:

  • Date of birth and current age; if deceased, age at death and cause of death
  • Sex
  • Ethnicity; some genetic diseases are more common in certain ethnic groups
  • Relevant medical diseases/conditions and age of onset
  • Developmental &/or learning disabilities
  • Congenital/juvenile deafness or blindness
  • Smoking habits
  • Any weight problems
  • Record date and name of person recording the family history

What do I do with the family health history?

Once you have collected the information, organized and wrote down the information, keep it in a save place. You can share the recording with your health care provider for his/her assessment and the promotion of your own health and well-being. Don't worry if there is incomplete documentation about a family member; try to fill in the gaps by asking other members of the family. Keep the history up-to-date as best you can and inform another family member as to its whereabouts. You will be creating a valuable tool for years to come that will improve the health of your family for generations to come.

Where can I find more information about family health history?

Check your local libraries

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