Top 10 Family Health History Topics to Discuss Over Turkey

Giving thanks for your health is one of the most common gratitude statements around the Thanksgiving table. In fact, the month of November has been coined as Family Health History Awareness Month. As you toast your glasses and savor delicious dishes that adorn your family’s table this Thanksgiving, use this time of gathering to learn about your family’s health. Knowing this information could save your life and your loved one’s lives as well. Here is a list of the top ten family health history topics that you should question over turkey dinner.

1. Genetics - If you are considering conceiving, it is essential that you know of any genetic disorders that run in your family, such as cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia. Your OB/GYN will ask questions ranging from genetic disorders to a family history of birth defects so it is imperative to question your family about any known diseases that may impact your offspring.

Knowing your family health history is essential if you are thinking about having a baby. Photo by Alicia Petresc

2. High Blood Pressure - Also known as hypertension. This condition commonly runs in families. As many people with high blood pressure have no symptoms, the condition can be left untreated for many years until a major health event occurs, such as stroke or heart attack.

3. Diabetes - Having a positive family history of type 2 diabetes, prediabetes, or gestational diabetes increases your risk of developing it. By sharing this information with your doctor, you both can closely monitor your blood sugar.

4. Cancer - Many cancers run in families, including breast, ovarian, uterine, and colorectal cancers. Sharing your family’s cancer history with your doctor is one of the first steps to finding out about your own cancer risk. With this information, your doctor will be able to perform the necessary screening tests to detect cancer as early as possible. You and your doctor should also discuss if your are a candidate for testing for any genes that may increase your cancer risk.

5. Heart Disease - Family history is a strong indicator of developing heart disease. Furthermore, a shared family lifestyle and home environment can also impact your risk for heart disease.

Matters of the heart run deep in families. Be sure to ask if your parents, grandparents, and siblings are being treated for any heart conditions. Photo by Ileana Skakun.

6. High Cholesterol - Also known as hyperlipidemia. This condition can be inherited but also can be the result of unhealthy lifestyle choices. With regular exercise, a good diet, and sometimes medication, high cholesterol can be managed and/or treated.

7. Lung Disease - Diseases that affect your lungs, such as COPD and asthma, have demonstrated genetic components. As the number of women diagnosed with lung disease is increasing in the United States, women should be aware of any family history of lung disease.

8. Mental Illness - The causes of mental disorders can be broad and may range from your genetics to your environment (trauma, substance abuse, emotional harm, etc.). While some mental illnesses can be passed down through families, the severity of illness can differ among family members.

9. Infertility - Many people remain quiet about their difficulty conceiving, especially in older generations. If a couple a few generations back did not have children, it was usually assumed that they did not want children and the topic was hushed. The science behind infertility is rapidly improving, but there is still mystery (i.e. unexplained fertility) that renders couples frustrated and saddened by their inability to conceive. Gather the ladies in your family and ask about difficulty conceiving, miscarriages, and other potential conditions that may impact fertility including endometriosis and early menopause.

10. Blood Type - Blood type is inherited from your parents. While many of us walk around without knowing our blood type, the information can be lifesaving for you, and for others. The easiest way to find out your blood type is to have your blood drawn. If you become pregnant, your doctor will perform this test right away to see if you or your baby is at risk for Rh incompatibility.

Having a transparent family health history is the gift that keeps on giving for generations to come. Photo by Blake Barlow.

Although it may feel awkward to bring up health history with relatives, a great tactic for starting the conversation is to begin by bringing up your own health. For example, maybe your blood pressure was high during your last physical exam. Bring it up at the table and ask if anyone else in the family has high blood pressure. In the spirit of giving, gift your relatives, and yourself, a solid family health history.

Julia Walker is an experienced registered nurse with a background in women’s health. She has worked in labor and delivery, postpartum, and outpatient women's care. She enjoys connecting with women through her writing as well as in the clinical setting. Her passion is helping women of all ages and stages embrace their reproductive health and maximize their quality of life.