Bonding over turkey and heritable disease

November 24, 2015


By: David Shifrin, PhD Science Writer, Filament Life Science Communications

A lot of stories get told around the Thanksgiving table that tend to be, well, less than historically accurate. What better time to push family lore just a little bit further than when everyone’s there to join fun? And then there are the old wives tales that get passed around as sage advice year after year. Let’s be honest, no matter how much you argue, Great-Aunt Helen will never believe that going outside in the cold won’t make you sick, and Uncle Jim will never be convinced that his post-dinner nap isn’t a direct result of his tryptophan intake. Not for nothing, but does Uncle Jim even know what tryptophan is?

Even so, for the past 11 years Americans have been encouraged to share family stories on Thanksgiving, but hopefully those rooted in a bit more truth. In 2004, the Surgeon General first declared the fourth Thursday in November to be National Family History Day. The idea is to take advantage of Uncle Jim and Great-Aunt Helen, along with all the siblings and cousins, hanging out in the same room to review any known family health issues.

Who knew there was a history of glaucoma? Had cousin Amy told anyone that she had undergone genetic testing for BRCA? Did the doctors ever figure out Grandpa’s underlying cardiac problem? Everyone agrees that this information is potentially important to the rest of the family, but nobody bothered to take careful note of it.

According to Health and Human Services, “96 percent of Americans believe that knowing their family history is important. Yet, the same survey found that only one-third of Americans have ever tried to gather and write down their family’s health history.”

We’ve covered issues surrounding the sharing of genetic information here on the blog. “Sharing,” though, has always referred to passing around huge datasets between researchers, companies, and the individual patients. Stepping away from the industrial side of things, it’s clearly important for individuals to consider sharing their health and genetic information with close relatives. There’s only so much the medical profession can do without individuals taking responsibility for their own health. The team at Concert Genetics recognizes this fact. Gillian Hooker, Concert Genetics Director of Clinical Development, says, “Family health history is one of the cheapest and most meaningful genetic tests we have. There’s tremendous value in collecting and tracking this information in order to better understand risks for conditions that might run in your family. ”

Not surprisingly, HHS has worked to make that collecting and tracking as easy as possible. Americans are encouraged to set aside some time on Thanksgiving to review each family member’s health history. From there, HHS has developed “My Family Health Portrait,” a simple if dated-looking web portal for creating basic pedigrees. The tool can indicate whether the individual at the center of the record is at increased risk for common heritable diseases like colon cancer and diabetes. Additionally, the tool can “re-index” the information, putting other family members on the tree at the center of the tool.

It’s certainly not a comprehensive tool, but a well-conceived effort to get people talking. The potential awkwardness of your brother suddenly asking personal medical questions through mouthfuls of green bean casserole makes the prospect of actually opening these topics during Thanksgiving a bit less appealing. Nonetheless, everyone in the medical community should take the idea behind National Family History Day and encourage the public to learn as much as they can about their own family’s medical past.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go find another stick of butter for my mashed potatoes. Have a great Thanksgiving!

November 24, 2015


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