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Thanksgiving: Family History Day

The surgeon general has declared this Thanksgiving Day the first National Family History Day, to highlight the importance of being aware of health problems that run in the family, reports The Early Show medical correspondent Dr. Emily Senay.

For a wide range of health issues, one of the best ways a doctor can determine your risk factors is by determining whether or not they run in your family.

Some of the most common diseases we face are a combination of hereditary and environmental influences, like heart disease, stroke, diabetes and many forms of cancer.

If you're aware of a history of health problems you it may be possible to test for and detect these problems earlier, and hopefully treat them or make lifestyle changes to do as much as possible to reduce the risk, promote good health and prevent disease.

The surgeon general and the Department of Health and Human Services are encouraging Americans to take the opportunity on Thanksgiving - when many families gather for the holiday - to talk about and collect information on any recurrent health issues that affect their families through the generations. Government surveys show the majority of Americans believe knowledge of their family health history is important, but only about a third attempt to gather the information. The new family history initiative is designed to encourage all Americans to learn about their families' health.

A new computerized tool has also been designed to help families, called "My Family Health Portrait." It can be downloaded at

It's a new, free computer program that helps families gather important family history information and organize it into a printout that can be taken to the family doctor and placed in the medical record.

Doctors can use family health history information to design individualized care and keep an eye on problem areas throughout the years. Genetic predisposition to a certain disease is by no means a guarantee that it will develop in an individual. But your doctor needs to be aware of relevant information when it comes to interactions of genetic, environmental, cultural, and behavioral factors shared by family members.

Doctors have been able to do more as our understanding of genetics increases and more genes related to disease are identified. Already we can detect and avoid birth defects and hereditary diseases through genetic testing. We also have the ability to identify genes that put people at a much higher risk of specific diseases like breast cancer. In some cases, genetic testing that identifies the high-risk genes can allow better-informed decisions about early intervention.

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