As the holiday season unfolds, families will be coming together to make and share memories. These family gatherings also provide a great opportunity to share your family’s health history as a way to both learn more about your ancestors and help you and your family be healthier.

In fact, Thanksgiving is designated as National Family Health History Day.

Most of us have a family history of at least one chronic disease – such as cancer, heart disease, or diabetes – which makes us more likely to get that disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And while medical experts acknowledge having a chronic condition in your family history doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be afflicted, knowing about it can help you take steps to reduce your risk.

When it Comes to Health, Knowledge is Power

"When it comes to your health, knowledge is power,” said Dr. Jeremy Wigginton, chief medical officer at Capital Blue Cross. “Knowing your family’s health history – and sharing that history with your family doctor – can be a powerful tool in preventing or minimizing chronic health issues.”

”Knowing your family’s health history – and sharing that history with your family doctor – can be a powerful tool in preventing or minimizing chronic health issues."
— Dr. Jeremy Wigginton, Capital Blue Cross chief medical officer

Compiling a family health history can encompass more than just making a list of known diseases and health conditions in your family. Families also can discuss:

  • Shared patterns in diets or exercise habits.

  • The prevalence of potentially addictive behaviors, such as smoking or drug and alcohol use.

  • Common traits in environment, such as whether you live in the same areas where you might be exposed to shared risks.

To help guide the family discussion, the U.S. Surgeon General offers an online tool called “My Family Health Portrait.” This free resource can help you both collect your family health history and easily share it with your family members and doctor.

Starting a Healthy Conversation

For some families, discussing personal health issues might seem uncomfortable. To help start the discussion, the CDC recommends ways to broach the topic:

  • If you have a newly diagnosed medical condition, let your family members know about it. By sharing yourself, they might open up about their own health issues.

  • If you’ve had genetic testing done, share the results with your family members.

  • If you’re among the older members in your family, you may know more about family diseases and health conditions, especially among deceased relatives. Share that history.

Dr. Wiggington suggests families also should be open about discussing mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety, which can run in families.

“Mental health can sometimes be a tough topic for people to discuss, but it’s an important one for families,” he said. “Openly sharing issues around mental wellness can not only help your loved ones understand each other better, it also can bring them closer together as mutual sources of support and guidance.”