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Thanksgiving can be used as a time to gather with loved ones – and track down your family health history

The holidays offer families the chance to slow down and spend some much needed quality time with loved ones. 

Thanksgiving, of course, is one of those hallmark holidays often filled with precious moments between relatives. 

Have you ever stopped to think that, along with creating special memories, Thanksgiving can be a time where you can focus on your own health?

Alongside the turkey and all the trimmings, there’s plenty of family history at the table during Thanksgiving and the holiday is the perfect time to collect a particular type of family history: Your family health history.

Did you know that Thanksgiving has been named National Family Health History Day? It’s a time when you can meet with your relatives and learn about any diseases they may have and, in turn, use that information to help chart your own health path.

“Our genetics can’t change, we’ve had them since we were born, and it’s important to know that certain genetic factors could play into your risk factors for certain diseases,” says Scott Robertson, MD, the president and CEO at Pacific Central Coast Health Centers. “So having a good working knowledge of your own family history, particularly with your first-degree relatives such as your parents and your siblings, can be helpful in deciding how to look at managing risk factors in your future.”

What exactly is family health history? 

You and your family members share genes. Within that shared DNA is a shared family health history—a record of the diseases and health conditions in your family.

You can know a lot about your family’s medical history, or you can know very little. Either way, it’s a good idea to serve up some family health history questions alongside that pumpkin pie. 

The CDC recommends keeping track of your family health history using online tools, such as the Surgeon General’s “My Family Health Portrait” website.

You can also share your own health history with family members while collecting theirs.

Put your health history to use

Collecting and sharing the information is an important first step. Once you have your family’s health history, you can put that knowledge to work with your doctor.

“It’s important to understand as much as possible,” Dr. Robertson says. “If you have a first-degree relative with cancer, it would be important to know the specifics about the type of cancer and when they were diagnosed and if they had anyone else in the family that they knew of with a similar diagnosis. Those can all be helpful bits of information in stratifying risk for any patient.”

Dr. Robertson notes that it’s not always easy for you or your family to talk about their health history, but that information can be incredibly valuable.

“Most people have a general knowledge of the health history of their immediate family, but health information is very personal,” Dr. Robertson says. “Some relatives may not be open to sharing their personal health history even with their own close family members. And they may not have a good knowledge of their own risk factors and how their genetics may have contributed to certain diseases.”

Environmental factors are also in play

Dr. Robertson points out that focusing solely on a genetic profile doesn’t paint a complete picture. Genetic information goes hand-in-hand with environmental factors.

According to the CDC, members of the same family also have many similar behaviors—like exercise and eating habits—and many live in the same area and come into contact with similar things in the environment.

“Having a genetic history doesn’t necessarily give you 100% certainty that you’re going to end up with the same diseases that run in your family,” Robertson says. “There are types of environmental modifications many can make to possibly lower your risks.”

Dr. Robertson says one example is melanoma, or skin cancer, which has a genetic component.

“We know that certain patients, particularly those with atypical nevus syndrome or a family history of melanoma, are at higher risk” he says. “Those patients should be particularly cautious about their sun exposure, even at a young age. That’s one example of how environmental factors could still modify your genetic risk.”

Dignity Health’s Pacific Central Coast Health Centers (PHC) is a non-profit community clinic organization of nearly 50 health centers located primarily from Templeton to Lompoc. To find out more, visit