This Thanksgiving, after watching football and debating politics with loved ones, Michiganians should spend some time talking about family medical history, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services says.

Michigan’s family history push is the statewide version of a national effort. Since 2004, the U.S. surgeon general has declared Thanksgiving to be National Family History Day. The thinking is that this topic is best broached when there are enough members of the family around to get an accurate picture.

“If one generation of a family has high blood pressure, it is not unusual for the next generation to have similarly high blood pressure,” the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services noted in a statement.

“Tracing the illnesses suffered by your parents, grandparents and other blood relatives can help your doctor predict the disorders to which you may be at risk and take action to keep you and your family healthy.”

All families are different, said Dr. Eden Wells, chief medical executive for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Some are reluctant to discuss personal medical issues or to delve into family history. In other families, no topic is off-limits.

“My parents came from a time when you didn’t discuss personal health issues at the dinner table, as if it was inviting bad things in,” Wells said. “But the holidays are when I learned about my family’s health background.”

Having a discussion on family medical history — and, better yet, keeping a chart — can help patients give their doctor accurate information that may affect their treatment.

If a high incidence of a problem exists within a family, such as hypertension or breast cancer, “little bells go off in a doctor’s head” that could lead to smarter treatment, Wells said.

As for when to broach the topic, Wells suggested choosing a time when the family is relaxed and telling stories. Those stories often involve family members. That’s a good segue into discussing family history.

“Ask what happened and when, and how old (the family member) was,” Wells said. “Do it when everybody’s relaxed, not when mom’s stressed out and making dinner.”

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has an online tool available, My Family Health Portrait, for people to create digitized versions of the family medical history. It can be saved online to be updated later, and printed off so other members of the family will have it.

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