Milk Your Family Elders this Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is coming up and there is a good chance that you will have the rare opportunity to visit with extended family for a few hours.  Now is the time to milk them.  Not for money, not to be written into their inheritance, but for another type of precious family heirloom — your family history.
Your family medical history is one of the most critical tools we have in understanding the health risks for you and your family.  This important information is often kept only in the memories of your relatives and fades a little bit with every generation.  Case in point: you probably have a good idea of your own health history and that of your parents and siblings.  But how about your grandparents and their siblings?  Is that history a bit murky?  Exactly.  And when family elders pass, this precious family history too often passes with them.

Since 2004 the Surgeon General has declared Thanksgiving ‘National Family History Day.’  The government even has a free web-based toolfor your use.

Will there be kids at your Thanksgiving celebration?  Rather than having them bug you for 3 hours about when the turkey will be ready, put them to work!  Have them interview every member of the family and put together a detailed family history.  No access to a computer or the internet on Thursday?  No problem.  Do it the old fashioned way: take pen to paper and record a pedigree.

Here are the key questions to ask:

  • Record names and dates of birth of each family member, illnesses and conditions (cancer, high blood pressure) and the ages they developed each.
  • Document ethnic background (Italian, Jamaican, Ashkenazi Jewish) for each branch of the family.
  • For deceased family members, record approximate age/cause of death and any chronic illnesses (e.g. diabetes diagnosed at age 55, died of a heart attack at age 70)

Are some of the details fuzzy?  Don’t be discouraged if people can’t remember exact ages of diagnosis or death — even an estimate (breast cancer diagnosed ~70s) can be extremely helpful.

When you call Aunt Millie or Grandpa Joe this week to tell them what time to arrive on Thursday, give them a heads-up that you’ll be doing a family history project this year.  This will allow them to study their personal records in advance, if need be, and come prepared.  When the family history is complete, circulate a copy to the family and keep a hard copy with your important documents and an electronic copy with your saved files.  Bring this history to your next medical appointment, if relevant.

This year, you won’t have to rely solely on the Thanksgiving wishbone for a year of good health for you and your family — — you will have created a document that increases the chance that your most important wish will come true.