As your family prepares for this unique, physically distanced, holiday season, consider having a conversation about your family’s health history. Families share genes, but they also share habits, food preferences, and environmental exposures. Knowing your family’s health history can help identify health risks and help you change habits and reduce exposures to prevent specific diseases.

Why is it important to share family health history?

You might be at risk of developing the same chronic disease as a close family member. If a close family member developed a disease early in life, or if you have multiple family members with the same disease, you are at higher risk. Most diseases have better outcomes when treated early.

What can I do with this information?

If you know you are at risk for a certain disease, you can discuss it with your doctor and take steps to prevent it. For example, if high blood pressure and heart disease has caused early death in your family, reduce your risk through annual blood pressure checks, regular exercise, and changes to your diet. If diabetes is common, take the “Prevent Diabetes Risk Test” at http://www.preventdiabeteswi.org.

What information should I ask my family about?

Here are some good questions to get started:

  • What medical conditions run in our family?
  • At what age were diseases diagnosis?
  • Did any close relatives die at an early age?
  • What were the causes of death of close relatives?
  • Are there any ethnicity-related conditions that we are at risk for?
  • Are there any mental health disorders that run in our family?

You can’t change your genes, but there are steps you can take to prevent health problems from developing. Exercising, eating healthy foods, not smoking or abusing alcohol, and using your family health history to make specific health decisions can reduce your chances of developing chronic disease. Visit this site to learn even more about how to reduce your risks for diseases that might be common in your family: https://www.cdc.gov/genomics/famhistory/famhist_chronic_disease.htm.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) discourages travel and large gatherings, but you can still connect with friends and family virtually. When your family gathers by phone or video this holiday season, share your family recipes and your family health history!

Shari Faber is a Health Educator for the Rock County Public Health Department.

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