You can’t fight your genetics. But, knowing your family’s history can reduce your chances of inheriting diseases or chronic medical conditions like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Since 2004, the U.S. Surgeon General has declared Thanksgiving as National Family History Day to encourage relatives to discuss the medical conditions that they have experienced. These conversations can be awkward, but they are key for early disease detection and even prevention.

Importance of Knowing Your Family History

Arming yourself with as much knowledge as possible about your family’s health history is important. Details like the age when a family member was diagnosed with a particular disease, the age and cause of death of family members who have passed away, and patterns of disease in your family are crucial. This information can help you and your doctor decide whether you should screen for particular diseases earlier or more frequently than conventionally recommended.

Your primary focus on this year’s National Family History Day should be to gather information on at least three generations of your blood-related family members. However, it’s also important to have a broad understanding about where your ancestors originated. Certain medical conditions, such as those resulting from a gene mutation, are sometimes more commonly found within specific racial and ethnic groups. For instance, sickle cell disease is more commonly seen in individuals who descended from Africa and the Mediterranean, while Tay-Sachs disease is more likely to be found in people with French Canadian, Jewish, and eastern and central European heritage. If you know your genealogy, you can ask your doctor to watch for diseases that appear at a higher rate among people from the same geographic regions as your ancestors.

Adopt a Healthy Lifestyle

Chronic diseases like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease are often genetic, but they can also be caused by external factors. Many families tend to have similar diet and exercise habits, surroundings, and lifestyle choices. These types of details should all be recorded when you gather your family’s medical history. The information can help you determine what habits you should practice more regularly, such as physical activity and healthy eating, and which habits you should avoid, such as smoking and high sodium consumption.

Once you have a composite of your family medical history, remember to use it. Share the information with your family and doctors. Periodically—for example, every Thanksgiving—discuss your findings as a family and make updates as needed. For the benefit of you and your loved ones, do the research and have the conversations that can keep your family healthier and happier for longer.