Family Health Important to Know

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Family end-of-year gatherings offer opportunity to update family health history

Do you know your family’s health history? This season may be a good time to find out.

“If you have a family member with risks in their health history, you should learn about it, as you may have to be careful about things like high blood pressure or other health concerns,” said Paula Pacini, exercise coordinator at the JCC.

Lynne Shopiro, chief nursing officer at Crouse Health, encourages people to discuss their health with other family members. “It allows a person to take steps to reduce his or her risk,” she says.

The holiday season may seem an odd time to talk about family health history. However, in some ways, it’s the ideal time. You may see relatives face to face whom you seldom see. It’s also a time for reminiscing and sharing. How you bring up these topics makes a difference between learning more about your medical background and spurring a completely awkward and unwanted conversation.

If family members withhold health information, it may be for reasons important to them. That could include embarrassment over perceived stigma, such as for a mental health issue. Or perhaps discussing the death of beloved family members dredges up painful memories of a dark period.

Nonetheless, it is important to bring up health history.

“It allows a person to take steps to reduce his or her risk,” said Lynne Shopiro, president of the board of directors for the American Heart Association in Syracuse, chief nursing officer at Crouse Health and president of the Syracuse Board of Directors of the American Heart Association. “Certain conditions tend to run in families, so knowing about the health of family members can help you and your doctor create a more appropriate plan for healthy living. This information can help you take preventive steps that can lead to better health outcomes in the future.”

Begin conversations about health matters with the person at the heart of the issue to avoid hearsay. For most families, it’s better to initiate the conversations one-on-one, not at the dinner table. Ask if it’s OK with the person to bring it up.

Instead of asking in the vein of morbid curiosity, frame your questions as to how they relate to you or your family, such as a trait or symptom you notice in you or your child that a relative shared. Explain why you want to know, such as to seek early intervention.

“To make the conversations more comfortable, explain why you want to know about their medical history and let them know you’re willing to share your health information with them too,” Shopiro said. “Many people prefer one-on-one conversations, but some families appreciate sitting down for a group discussion so everyone can share information at once.”

You can always assure the person sharing that the information will be used only with a healthcare provider as needed.

Sticking with symptom-related language rather than diagnosis-related language can feel less stigmatizing to anyone asked about health history. Engage the person in a conversation, not an interrogation. It may also help to start with your concerns for yourself or your child.

Don’t let concern over the other person’s possible sensitivity deter you from learning your family’s health history. This knowledge can help caregivers and patients plan and undertake lifestyle changes to help reduce risk.

“Knowing family health history is important,” said Monique Winnett, clinical psychologist at St. Joseph’s Health. “It’s a great opportunity to ask. For some, it may feel private, but maybe not at the table unless your family is more open.”

She said that learning about family mental health history is as important as physical health history. However the stigma associated with the former still prevents many families from discussing it.

“People need to understand mental health is part of overall health,” Winnett said. “The more people acknowledge all our needs, the more we can improve health.”

You could also consider asking family members to fill out a questionnaire about family health issues that are important to you. Compared with a conversation, filling out a questionnaire can take the pressure off and allow family members time to frame their responses thoughtfully.