Thanksgiving can be a time when we reconnect with family and rekindle relationships. For others though, it can be a reminder why you don’t see these people very often. Whatever your case may be, I encourage you to use the occasion of being with family to bring up an important topic: your family’s medical history.

Any time I meet new patients, I ask them about any medical problems that run in their family. Based on the responses, I can only assume that many patients are the latest in a long line of invincible beings, immune to any illness. Unfortunately, the reality is many of us don’t know our family’s health history as well as we should. The genetic material we inherit from our ancestors affects many aspects of our lives, from the color of our eyes and hair to the diseases to which we are at risk. In short, looking to our families’ past can help us predict and prepare for illness to come.

That’s not to say that all diseases are predictable and preventable. Your genetic make-up has little bearing on some illnesses like the flu or the common cold. The environment in which we live and the choices we make about caring for our bodies have the largest impact on many common health problems. But knowing whether your family members had heart disease, diabetes, cancer, kidney disease, liver disease, or many other conditions can help you and your doctor either prevent those problems or identify and treat them early.

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I realize it might feel awkward to ask your aunt, “Please pass the mashed potatoes, and, by the way, have you had any problems with your liver lately?” Yet tactfully approaching the topic can help you build empathy for and offer support to those family members who are facing health problems. It may be easier then forgiving your uncle for snatching the last dinner roll. It can also help you feel informed if you need to make difficult decisions about your relatives’ end-of-life care. It will also help you be proactive about your own health.

When you sit down to share Thanksgiving, I encourage you to take this opportunity to find out about your family’s medical history. You might just find yourself closer to your family members and better informed about your own healthcare.

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Dr. Stephen Asay, a second-year resident physician with the Montana Family Medicine Residency at RiverStone Health, can be reached at 247-3306.