Why should you talk about family history and health?

roxannebuggyJanuary 12, 2010

The woman on the horse is a relative that I share a first name with…tho, of course, I never knew her. I wonder what else we might share. Hair color, height, health?

 The U.S. Surgeon General advises us to ‘know our family health history.’ The problem is, what to know and how to know it. Since 2004, the Surgeon General has declared Thanksgiving to be National Family History Day [http://www.hhs.gov/familyhistory/] as part of an initiative to get us talking. While we do need to find a time to talk with our family about our health histories, few things seem more doomed to failure than pushing families to talk about poor health at a gathering aimed at celebrating.

First, older adults in our families have many interesting things to tell us about that go on in their lives besides poor health. Many have good health and no reason to focus on poor health. Many want to avoid the stereotype linked to old folks talking about their health and nothing else…even when they do have poor health.

Second, younger adults who need to know about their family health history need to know details that are unlikely to be discussed in such public settings, or if they are discussed, unlikely to be remembered.

Third, it is not particularly helpful to know that there is diabetes or heart disease or cancer in your family if you don’t also know who had the condition, at what age they had the condition, what treatment they used to address the condition, and with what success. Or, knowing what family members have died from should be accompanied by information about the age at time of death.

In this  era when we have more awareness of how genes affect health and our reponses to medications and other therapies, we may want to know whether our family members have had any genetic tests. If they have, what ones led to positive results indicating the presence of a particular form of a gene? 

Talking about family health history is important but can be difficult if we don’t make time and don’t know what to talk about….

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2 Responses to “Why should you talk about family history and health?”

  1. Kyle Sebastian says:

    I 100% agree to the argument that needing to know you family’s health history is important. But not only that, you bring up new details to my mind that I hadn’t actually thought about, which are all just as important details. Such as, what age they had the condition. Coming from a diabetes prone family, with off complications makes me wonder the question. At what age? …and why then? The advancements medicine had made in the past 10 years regarding family genes and specific diagnosis is mind-blowing.

  2. lee says:

    I absolutely think that communicating about family health history is important. But I also agree with the difficulties mentioned above. As I was reading through this article, a couple of communication concepts and questions related to those concepts came to my mind.
    Firstly, in my Health Communication class, I learned that we tend to have some stereotypes against the old (this idea of “being old” doesn’t necessarily mean numerical age, we perceive someone’s old based on some cues). Two of the positive stereotypes were “being perfect grandparents” and “being golden agers”.
    What if in the family gathering time, you happen to have a perfect chance (good timing, good place where other family members cannot hear your clearly) to talk real comfortably with your grandparents about family health history, but they KNOW that you have the expectations (stereotypes) that they should be one of those “golden agers” or “perfect grandparents”? My guess is that they will try not to disappoint you by disclosing their poor health history if there was any.
    Secondly, thinking about disclosure, I remember learning the fears people have when it comes to disclosure. One of them was fear of losing control, becoming too emotional. I believe all humans are emotional beings. The fact that being in a bad health condition or recalling the experiences related to sickness can trigger negative emotions. Since in family settings, you usually lower your guard and relax, I think these emotions are more likely to surface. Thus, making the fear of losing control more serious.
    Lastly, I think there might be a chance that your grandparents or parents are engaging in facework by being ambiguous or concealing some part of their health history when they know their sickness was caused by bad health behavior.
    Do you have any advice on how we can overcome these barriers? Thanks.

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