Family Time Health Discussion Family Time Health Discussion
Credit: Jett Loe/UNM Health Sciences Center

Holiday Pro Tip: Ditch Politics and Ask About Your Family Health History

While you’re gathered with your loved ones this holiday season, you might try this maneuver to avoid spiraling into the black hole of rancorous political debates: talk about your family health history instead. 

Everyone will probably be happier, not to mention the positive long-term effects of gleaning crucial information about diseases that run in the family. You can then take your multigenerational health history to a physician, who can help come up with an individualized health game plan. 

“There’s a whole field of science showing that for a specific cancer or cardiac condition or other health problems, if we know what we’re at risk for, we can strategize on being specific on incorporating the lifestyle behaviors that will help reduce that risk, even if we’re genetically predisposed to a certain disease,” says David Rakel, MD, chair of the Department of Family and Community Medicine at The University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center.

The National Institutes of Health advises collecting key information such as major medical conditions and causes of death, age of disease onset and age at death, and ethnic backgrounds for your close relatives. Rakel recommends going back at least two generations in your family. 

With that information, which you can enter into the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's My Family Health Portal, a physician might personalize a wellness plan that could be crucial for an individual with a family history of a specific disease.

“A recent study looked at the genetic risk for heart disease,” Rakel says. “Then they looked at the number of healthy lifestyles the person incorporated. The lifestyles they incorporated were more powerful than their genetic risk. They were both important, but the environment they created around the genetic risk was able to keep the risky gene from expressing itself as a heart attack.”

Rakel says his general wellness plan for his patients includes quitting smoking, exercising, eating a nutritious diet, maintaining an ideal weight, reducing alcohol consumption and limiting stress.

“The more of those you do, it’s additive towards suppressing the at-risk gene,” Rakel says.

“People always forget the emotional one,” adds Rakel, author of the recently published The Compassionate Connection: The Healing Power of Empathy and Mindful Listening. “When we’re constantly under stress, that stimulates cortisol, which promotes weight gain. Instead, we can forgive others easily and wake up each morning with a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives. People don’t realize how important that is to reduce the risk of disease.” 

When it comes to broaching the subject with a particularly private or stubborn family member, Rakel suggests framing questions in a help-needed context. 

“One can say, ‘Hey, I’d love to do all I can to invest in my long-term health. Are there any diseases that run in our family to be aware of?’” Rakel says. “Most people are willing to share that information if it will benefit another human being.”

Another non-scientific, medically unproven tip: Avoid political debates with your family members – not just over the holidays but every other day as well.

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