Happy Thanksgiving 2017: Take time to collect, share, and act on your family health history, it may save your life!

Posted on by Muin J Khoury, Director, Office of Public Health Genomics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Happy Thanksgiving 2017 with an image of DNA and pumpkins and leavesRegular readers of this blog may have noticed that we have an almost identical message around each Thanksgiving Day. Collect, share, and act on your family health history! It seems every year we emphasize a slightly different version of this message. In 2016, we highlighted the emergence of new tools that can help consumers and providers collect and analyze family history information. In 2015, we focused on the need to “think globally and act locally” when it comes to spreading the word about the value of family health history in health care and population health. In 2014, we challenged the prevailing notion that, as a non-modifiable risk factor, family history is not worthy of public health messaging. By knowing and acting on your family history, you can reduce your disease risk and actually change family health history for future generations.

So why do we persist year after year in promoting the value and use of family history around thanksgiving? Since 2004, The U.S. Surgeon General has designated Thanksgiving day as National Family History Day, a day to help families learn and collect information about their family health history. Family history can identify people at high risk for many common diseases, such as heart disease, breast, colorectal, and other cancers, diabetes, osteoporosis, glaucoma, depression and suicide, and more. In fact, having at least one first-degree relative (parent, sibling or child) with a disease doubles the person’s risk for the same disease. The risk is even higher if there are several affected relatives in the family, and affected relatives develop the disease at an early age. Family history is also associated with a wide range of genetic diseases such as sickle cell disease, hereditary hemochromatosis, familial hypercholesterolemia, and more.

In 2017, the simple fact remains that even in this day and age of genomics and precision medicine, family history remains as the ultimate low tech tool (and the first genetic test) allowing people to understand their predispositions to various diseases. Family history of a disease, whether due to genetic, shared environmental factors, or some combinations, puts people at risk for the same disease. In many instances, this knowledge could be used to understand whether genetic counseling may be needed to direct preventive interventions that can prevent early disease and death for individuals and their relatives. Family health history is dynamic and needs to be updated year after year as new illnesses occur in the family. This is why we stress to have an updated record of your family health history.

Nevertheless, collection and use of family history by the general public is still suboptimal in the United States. In our 2004 national survey, we found that the vast majority (96%) of Americans believed that family health history was important for their health, but less than an a third (30%) of respondents actively collected this information. A 2014 national survey of more than 5000 respondents still found that the overwhelming majority of people still consider family history to be important to their health. However, in the percentage of respondents actively collecting family history information had only slightly increased from 2004 (37%). Another recent survey showed disparities in family history collection by age, gender, ethnicity, and health status. These findings stress the importance of continued public health educational efforts as well as novel approaches and tools to increase awareness, collection, and use of family health history.

This Thanksgiving, we would like to once again encourage everyone to learn, share and act on their family health histories. Family health history is dynamic and needs to be updated as new illnesses occur in the family, so if you collected your family history information last year, you should update it this year. To help facilitate conversations with relatives, several resources are available including the U.S. Surgeon General’s Family History My Family Health Portrait Tool, available in multiple languages. In addition, check out CDC’s portal page on the collection of family history across the lifespan.

From our family to yours, we wish you all the best for Thanksgiving and the beginning of the holiday season.

Posted on by Muin J Khoury, Director, Office of Public Health Genomics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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Page last reviewed: November 20, 2017
Page last updated: November 20, 2017