Thanksgiving Day is National Family Health History Awareness Day

Nov. 25, 2019 / By Kelly Long, BS, CPC, CPCO, CAPM

The Surgeon General of the United States created this initiative in 2004 as a way for families to share their health histories as they gather around the table, watch the Macy’s Day Parade or bellow at the football game on TV.

A family medical history is a record of medical and health information about an individual and their close relatives. A complete record should include information from at least three generations of blood relatives, including children, parents, cousins, and grandparents. Ideally, the family history would also include the relative’s age at diagnosis, any influencing factors to their condition such as poor diet and lack of exercise, smoking, drug use or alcohol use. For deceased relatives, note their age when passing and the official cause of death.

Gathering this family health history is imperative to see if serious health conditions run in the family and if you are at an increased risk of developing these conditions. Common health conditions seen in families can range from diabetes, various cancers, heart disease, stroke and dementia. If health conditions are known to run in the family, individuals can work with their healthcare providers to determine their risk and what measures they should take for early detection and prevention if possible. Providers will often recommend screening tests be performed. These tests can range from a screening mammogram or screening colonoscopy to blood work to check your cholesterol, glucose or PSA (prostate specific antigen) levels. Providers will also encourage lifestyle changes for those at a greater risk: quit smoking, limit use of alcohol, increase activity and alter diet.

Rarer family health conditions may come to light when couples decide to start a family. If it is determined that you are a carrier of a genetic condition like Hereditary Hemorrhagic Telangiectasia (HHT) or Cystic Fibrosis , additional testing could be performed to determine your risk of passing on this condition.  On a personal note, HHT, which is a rare autosomal dominant genetic disorder, runs in my family. I underwent the genetic testing with my sister and cousins to determine who would be affected and potentially pass on to future generations. Our moms, aunt and grandpa were all confirmed carriers. Being proactive with our family medical history enabled my generation to have the knowledge needed to make informed decisions.

A detailed family medical history, although it provides information about the risk of developing certain conditions, does not guarantee that you will necessarily develop that same condition. However, it is an asset to your health and your family’s to be knowledgeable about all conditions that have been identified in your blood line that may have a potential impact on you.

There is no better time than a family gathering to get the discussion going on your family’s health history. “Grandma, pass me the gravy and, by the way, how’s your cholesterol?”

Kelly Long is a clinical development analyst with 3M Health Information Systems.


The Office of the Surgeon General offers a tool called My Family Health Portrait that allows you to enter, print, and update your family health history.