With the holiday season rapidly approaching, there are many things to look forward to: delicious food, family parties and time to catch up with relatives. However, even though discussions at the dinner table during this time of year are generally light-hearted and amusing, there is a more serious topic families should consider addressing this holiday season: medical history.
Holiday gatherings are the ideal time to discuss diseases and medical conditions that have been in your family. If you are unsure of the medical history of your relatives, there are numerous reasons to bring up the topic this season and create a written medical family record (similar to a family tree). It can potentially save your life or the life of a loved one.
Diseases and medical conditions such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, arthritis, mental illness and substance abuse are often associated with genetic risk, according to William M. Silverman, DO, a family physician in Maitland, Florida.
“You inherit one-half of your genes from each parent, including genes that may cause or increase risk of these certain medical conditions,” explains Dr. Silverman.
In addition to learning which diseases and medical conditions are common to your family, creating a medical family record makes it easier to work with your physician to develop a personalized plan to remain healthy.
“If a patient came to me with a medical family record, I would be able to better assess the risk of certain diseases and recommend changes in his/her lifestyle and diet to lower disease risk,” says Dr. Silverman. “It is much easier to determine the type and frequency of appropriate disease screening tests if you provide us a family medical history.”
Unfortunately, health history is not an easy topic to discuss. Some relatives may not feel comfortable disclosing personal medical information due to shame, painful memories, denial or a general perception that recording a medical history is useless.
Starting the Conversation
Stressing the importance of working together to develop the family medical record, Dr. Silverman gives some suggestions on how to bring up a potentially touchy subject this holiday season:
Explain the importance of creating a family health history. Highlight diseases which are hereditary (the most common being heart disease, cancer and diabetes).
Ask broad questions, and then become more personal. It helps people feel more at ease with the topic.
Be a good listener. Try to listen without judgment.
Provide several ways for relatives to answer questions. If speaking face-to-face is frightening to a family member, suggest they email or call you with anything they are willing to share.
Most importantly, respect your family members' right to privacy. The information relatives are willing to share should remain between you and your doctor.
Even though we could all use extra motivation to eat healthier, exercise more, drop harmful habits and achieve a healthy body weight, people with a family history of inherited diseases and medical conditions have even more incentive to take good care of their bodies.