Cathy Harper-Hogan, M.D., never misses a chance at family gatherings to bug everyone about their health.
“I’ve got this captive audience, and what better way to teach them than taking blood pressures, showing them a scale of what’s considered good blood pressures and bad blood pressures, and then giving them some education in terms of, ‘OK, how can we get this better?" she says. "And if you don’t have a regular doctor, what can we do?’”
Harper-Hogan, 64, medical director of Macon Occupational Medicine in Macon, Georgia, comes from a large family that has incorporated health into its reunions and extended family network. For example, besides monitoring blood pressure and prompting relatives to check their glucose levels, Harper-Hogan organized a family 5K walk.
Her efforts over the past 20 or so years have paid off, she says. “My family became a little more health conscious,” she says.
Sharing health information
Family gatherings and reunions are perfect opportunities not only to encourage healthy habits but also to share health information, experts say.
Documenting that shared history is a gift for younger generations, says Laura M. Koehly, chief and senior investigator in the Social and Behavioral Research Branch at the National Human Genome Research Institute of the National Institutes of Health. Her research focuses on how families navigate inherited disease, including diagnosis, caregiving, support and prevention.
“An individual’s family health history shapes their clinical care,” she says. That might mean someone with a strong family history for cancer is screened more frequently or at an earlier age. It encourages families to be in touch about health issues, even if they no longer live near each other. It inspires family members to work on prevention and bridges the generations as they collect information or share it, she says.
One way to start is with the free online tool My Family Health Portrait, developed by the U.S. surgeon general. The form can be downloaded, shared with other family members and updated whenever new health information becomes available. Koehly suggests appointing a family curator to maintain it. Her institute is working on more tools to train families on how to collect and document health information.