As the year draws to a close and families gather together for the holidays, many have a lot to share. One of the many conversations likely to come up is health history.

After living through a global health crisis with the COVID-19 pandemic, family health history has become even more critical. Those with certain genetic or pre-existing conditions such as diabetes, cancer, or compromised immune systems have been especially vulnerable to the virus.

Thanksgiving is a time to celebrate our history and our family. That’s why the holiday focused on giving thanks is also Family Health History Day.

Developing an open conversation about health can have benefits not only for you but for your children and extended family. It’s important to document family members’ major health conditions and rare diseases, including the age of diagnosis, ethnicity, and lifestyle information, such as smoking or exposure to chemicals like Agent Orange, diethylstilboestrol (DES), or asbestos.

How to start the conversation

While you may want to talk about when you had your first colonoscopy, your teenage nephew might not be so enthusiastic. Develop a plan for how you want to approach the conversation before you gather over the turkey.

  1. Let your relatives know you are putting together a family health history and would like their help. This gives them time to consider their own health history and look for family documents and photos.
  2. Provide specific questions to help them understand what you’re looking for. It may be well known by the extended family that your maternal grandmother died of cancer, but it may not be common knowledge that it was a rare type of leukemia, or that she also had survived breast cancer in her 40s.
  3. If you’re able to gather for Thanksgiving, or other family occasions, share stories and ask questions. While you thought Uncle Sam died of a heart attack ten years ago, Aunt Nora can confirm that it was a pulmonary blood clot.
  4. While it may seem unrelated, knowing your relatives’ ethnicity, occupation and chemical exposures may also clue you in on health history. Those with Ashkenazi Jewish heritage have a higher risk of certain cancers. Shipyard workers exposed to asbestos are at an increased risk of developing a rare cancer called mesothelioma.

Understand the challenges

Many family members, especially those in certain cultures and generations, may not feel comfortable diving into complex and sensitive health topics, so it’s important to be sensitive and respectful.

Asking close relatives for help speaking with other family members or explaining why it’s important to discuss these matters may help them feel more comfortable. Other topics may take more time and sensitivity, such as miscarriage and deaths from diseases that carried a past stigma, such as cancer, AIDS and cirrhosis.

Sharing and using your family health history responsibly

Developing a family tree that documents significant health issues, age of death, and other important facts can help determine potential hereditary trends. Pair the information with genetic test results and your medical history, and ask your medical provider for insights. Your clinician may recommend lifestyle changes, additional screenings or follow-up tests if needed. Sharing the information with family members can help them do the same.

While Thanksgiving is considered Family Health History Day, it doesn’t mean the conversation has to end when dessert is served. Having the information on a shared and secured platform can assure that the data is readily accessible for family members and can be easily updated as new diagnoses, exposures and other information is recorded.

Contribute to research

While your family health history can provide a trove of data for you and your family to make future health decisions, it can also be vital for research. Taking the Family Health Surveys that are included in the “Tell Us About Yourself” study from Luna can provide researchers with data on family health, hereditary diseases, and potential effects based on lifestyle and exposure. And because it’s on the Luna platform, the information is secure, private, and still controlled by you.

About Luna

Luna’s suite of tools and services connects communities with researchers to accelerate health discoveries. With participation from more than 180 countries and communities advancing causes including disease-specific, public health, environmental, and emerging interests, Luna empowers these collectives to gather a wide range of data — health records, lived experience, disease history, genomics, and more – for research.

Luna gives academia and industry everything they need from engagement with study participants to data analysis across multiple modalities using a common data model. The platform is compliant with clinical regulatory requirements and international consumer data privacy laws.

By providing privacy-protected individuals a way to continually engage, Luna transforms the traditional patient-disconnected database into a dynamic, longitudinal discovery environment where researchers, industry, and community leaders can leverage a range of tools to surface insights and trends, study disease natural history and biomarkers, and enroll in clinical studies and trials.