If you’re looking to spark healthier table conversations at family gatherings, consider turning the talk to just that — health. Family get-togethers are a great opportunity to share information about medical issues among close relatives. What you learn could be vital to a healthy future for all.
“Having those conversations, whether it’s done in person or done virtually, is really important because we know major chronic diseases are such a burden in our country. Heart disease, diabetes, asthma, COPD, mental health issues, arthritis, cancer — these often have aspects of family history and genetics,” Kyu Rhee, M.D., senior vice president at CVS Health and chief medical officer at Aetna, said in an interview.
About 40 percent (225 of 560) of diseases reviewed by researchers had a genetic component, according to a 2019 study published in Nature Genetics. Researchers used a database of nearly 45 million patient records (provided by Aetna) to estimate the influence of genes and environment on the health of fraternal and identical twins.
Understanding personal risk factors can help families plan around their unique needs and take charge of their health, Rhee says. It’s important to gather detailed medical histories about grandparents, parents and children that can be shared. The history should include any chronic disease such as cancers, heart failure, diabetes, asthma, allergies, dementia and mental illness. That doesn’t mean every illness is linked to your genetic code; environmental and behavioral factors can also put you at greater risk for disease. Smokers, for example, are at higher risk of developing lung disease or COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).
Keys to A Healthier Life
Everyone wants to stay in good health. Kyu Rhee, M.D., senior vice president at CVS Health and chief medical officer at Aetna, emphasizes what he calls the “big five” keys to a healthier life.
- Eat a healthy diet
- Exercise regularly
- Maintain a healthy weight/body mass
- Don’t smoke
- Limit your alcohol consumption
“If you maintain those five healthy habits, you can add more than a decade to your life expectancy, which can give you a lot more holidays with your family,” Rhee says.
What information to gather
Rhee suggests that you build a family medical history like a genealogist might build a family tree that includes your grandparents, parents, siblings and children. The broader you can expand the group the better, but the key is to get usable information on medical issues.
For each, you’ll want to know of any chronic illnesses they may have had. It’s important to know more than simply what medical condition relatives have, Rhee says. You also want to answer these questions: