Talking about diseases and poor health isn’t always easy. When families gather for holidays, meals or reunions, heart disease and cancer might not top the list of conversation topics.
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But look at it this way: If you can help prevent diseases and poor health by talking about them — even just for a while — isn’t that worthwhile?
Next time you’re with your family, ask the questions below. Use them to start a conversation that can improve everyone’s health.
If you’re not comfortable talking in a group setting, pull people aside for one-on-one conversations. These questions are a good starting point. You can use an online tool to gather family history information to share with your doctor.
What’s your family background?
You may know where your family comes from already, but if you don’t, ask. Your ethnicity sometimes affects your disease risk.
For example, people in the Ashkenazi Jewish population have more than double the risk of a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation. Those are the gene mutations most often related to breast cancer. If your family has an Ashkenazi background, pay extra attention to screenings and ask about genetic counseling.
Different backgrounds come with different risks, so knowing your family roots is helpful.
RELATED: Should All Women Be Screened for BRCA1 and BRCA2?
What diseases have your family members had?
Did both of your grandfathers have high blood pressure (hypertension)? Do either of your parents have type 1 or type 2 diabetes? What about your siblings?
I know these conversations can get personal. Who wants to talk about blood pressure while passing the mashed potatoes?
But we need to break through taboos and ask. Chronic diseases, such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes, sometimes have a genetic component. The more you know about which family members have had which diseases, the more a doctor can help identify whether you’re at risk.
RELATED: 4 Surprising Facts About Your Genes and Diabetes
When were your relatives diagnosed with diseases?
Knowing when a family member had a disease or condition is just as important as knowing that they had it.
Having a disease like cancer at an early age can be a big red flag for a genetic condition. Take thyroid cancer, for example. We typically don’t expect to see it until after age 45. So if you have relatives who had thyroid cancer before age 45 — especially more than one — you should note that information in your family history. And you should ask if genetic counseling is a smart move for you.
The “when” is just one detailed question to ask, too. For cancer, you should also ask which organs were affected. Sometime a genetic condition ends up raising your risk for more than one type of cancer. And if these relatives died, at what age did they die?
In other words, the more detail you can gather, the better.
RELATED: Thyroid Cancer: Does It Run In the Family?
Has anyone in your family been tested for genetic mutations?
The answer may be “no” for a lot of people. But as genetic tests become more common, this question matters more and more.
If your mom or aunt has a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation, you need to know that. So do others in your family. Knowing means you can take action, see a genetic counselor and get screened if you need to.
BRCA is just one well-known example. You never know what you might find when you start talking with your family members — and asking the right questions.