Holidays Offer Prime Time To Share Family Health Histories

Armen Hareyan's picture

As families gather across the country this year to share holiday meals, they should share something else with each other: their family health histories.

While passing the turkey and stuffing around the table, relatives can also pass along vital family medical information that might one day save their lives, says Heather Hampel, a genetic counselor in the clinical cancer genetics program at the James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute at Ohio State University.

"The holidays are a great time to share old stories and talk with relatives about your family medical history," says Hampel, who also is a researcher in the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center. "Understanding your family health history is a vital step toward prevention. Learning about your relatives' health conditions may alert you to possible inherited diseases that you may want to discuss further with a local genetics professional."


Since 2004, the U.S. Surgeon General has declared Thanksgiving as National Family History Day, encouraging Americans to learn more about their family trees.

Some family members inherit genes that make them more susceptible to Alzheimer's disease, cancer or heart disease, Hampel says. Genetic testing and counseling is available to help families determine if they carry mutations in certain genes.

"We'd like people to talk to their families about any health condition that seems to be running in their family, such as cancers or heart disease," Hampel says. "Red flags might be multiple individuals with the same condition, family members diagnosed with medical problems at unusually young ages, and family members who have had more than one type of cancer."

If one blood relative tests positive for a gene mutation, other family members are encouraged to also be tested, Hampel says.

"If you can find out ahead of time that you have an increased risk for cancer, then you can do something about it," Hampel says. "This is a gift that older generations didn't have. They were walking around at increased risk with no way of knowing whether or not they were going to be the one to get cancer. But with this generation, we have the ability to know who is at risk and who's not." Genetic testing is recommended for anyone with a family history of early onset cancer (diagnosed before age 50) or multiple cancers diagnosed in the same person or in the same family, Hampel says.