Holiday Season Offers Opportunity to Discuss Family Health History

By Dr. Jennifer Chambers, Senior Vice President and Chief Medical Officer, Capital Blue Cross

This editorial is part of Transforming Health’s Expert Voices, where health care professionals discuss issues facing our community. All information is based on the expert’s experience and is not meant to replace professional medical advice or treatment plans. We encourage you to contact a qualified health care professional to discuss your individual health concerns.

With the holiday season upon us, families will once again be gathering to make and share memories. These family gatherings also can be a great opportunity to start a discussion about your family’s health history as a way to both learn more about your ancestors and help you and your family be healthier.

Dr. Jennifer Chambers, Senior Vice President and Chief Medical Officer, Capital Blue Cross

Dr. Jennifer Chambers, Senior Vice President and Chief Medical Officer, Capital Blue Cross

It’s not uncommon for any family to have a history of at least one chronic condition persisting down through generations, such as cancer, depression, diabetes, or heart disease. Having that family history can increase the chances of you, your siblings, or your children facing the same health challenges. And while having a chronic condition in your family history doesn’t necessarily mean you will be affected by it, knowing about it can empower you to take steps to reduce your risk.

Simply put, when you know a medical condition runs in your family, you can use that knowledge to develop greater awareness of the warning signs and work with your doctor on better prevention.

If you learn you have a family history of colon cancer, for example, share that background with your doctor. Your doctor might recommend preventive measures – such as getting colorectal cancer screenings more frequently or at an earlier age – because of the increased risk posed by your family history.

Family discussions about health history also can go beyond a list of known diseases or medical conditions. Families can discuss shared patterns in diets or exercise habits, the prevalence of potentially addictive behaviors like smoking or drug and alcohol use, and common traits in your environment, such as whether relatives might live in neighborhoods or communities where they could be exposed to shared health risks.

Understandably, discussing personal health issues might seem uncomfortable for some families, but there are simple ways to break the ice and start the conversation:

  • If you have a newly diagnosed medical condition, let your family members know about it. Sharing your story might help them open up about their own health issues.
  • If you’ve had genetic testing done, discuss the results with your family members.
  • If you’re among the older members in your family, you may know more about your family’s health history than others. Share that history.
  • Encourage the discussion to focus on mental health issues too, not just physical ones.

That last point is an especially important one, given the stress and anxiety we’ve all been through during the pandemic.

Having candid family discussions about mental wellness can be a powerful way to break down the stigma around conditions like depression or anxiety, not to mention a way of offering support for loved ones who might be struggling.

Learning and sharing our family health histories in this way can not only help make us healthier as individuals – it can bring us closer together as families.

(Dr. Jennifer Chambers, MD, MBA, FACP, leads Capital Blue Cross’ work in medical policy, clinical innovation, and quality initiatives. She is board certified in internal medicine and hospice and palliative care, and she is a fellow of the American College of Physicians and a member of the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine.)