Use holiday gatherings to mine for family health history

Take family holiday gatherings as a chance to discuss family health history.

If Grandma is coming up from Florida during Thanksgiving to see the grandbabies or Aunt Madge will be at Christmas dinner this year, use this opportunity to learn more about your family health history from people with pertinent knowledge, say University of Alabama at Birmingham genetics experts.

family_story“The holidays are a great time to collect your family history,” says Lynn Holt, M.S., director of the School of Health Professions Genetic Counseling program. “Most people don’t know much about the family history beyond their first-degree relatives, their own parents and siblings.”

Talk to grandparents or great-grandparents and make detailed records on their immediate family — parents, siblings and children. You want to jot down names, year of birth, year of death and any health problems that person may have had. Ask if any siblings died during childhood and if so, why?  Many people don’t like to talk about a sibling who died young, but knowing if it happened — and why — can produce very valuable information.

“We sometimes hear people say they’ve been told their mother’s brother dropped dead at age 20, for example,” says Holt.  “It’s important to find out why. Was it because of a genetic heart condition that you might have inherited, or is it simply that brother was guilty of some accident that nobody wants to talk about?”

Holt says ask if there is any cancer in the family.  If so, ask the kind of cancer and at the age family members first were diagnosed.  Age of diagnosis is more medically valuable than age of death in determining heritable conditions.

Ask similar questions about heart disease, diabetes, mental health conditions or other common conditions in adulthood.  Holt also says to look into any environmental exposures that may explain family health problems such as occupational exposures, smoking or pollution. 

And it’s probably best not to bring the subject up over dinner with a crowd.  Try to find some quiet time with each member of the older generation and begin the conversation. Many older family members welcome the chance to share the family story and memories of loved ones who have passed away, Holt says.

After you collect all this information, share it with your physician to help determine if there are certain health conditions for which you need to be evaluated based on your family history.

The National Society of Genetic Counselors has a website with more information about family history collections at