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This Thanksgiving Have a Talk about Family Health

LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck

“Discussing health issues that have impacted family members over the years might not seem like a good conversation starter with relatives visiting on Thanksgiving. However, the holiday is a perfect time to create a record of your family’s health,” says LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck. “Family health history can be an important clue in determining personal risk for a number of diseases and conditions.”

Information on disorders that have affected multiple generations can help you and your health care provider devise a plan that may help reduce the likelihood of the same disorders happening to you. For example, if your family health record shows a higher-than-usual incidence of certain cancers, your health care professional may recommend that you make some lifestyle modifications and you undergo earlier and more frequent screenings such as mammography or colonoscopy. Awareness can also alert you to early warning signs of disease, when treatment is more likely to be successful.

Why do certain diseases run in a family?

Environment and lifestyle often play a role in the development of a number of common conditions including high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and asthma. So can the genes that family members share. Siblings and cousins can also carry the same mutations in the genes that can cause rarer conditions, including certain cancers of the breast and prostate. According to the National Institutes of Health, red flags indicating increased family risk include:

  • Diseases that occur at an earlier age than expected (10 to 20 years before most people get the disease)
  • Disease in more than one close relative
  • Disease that does not usually affect a certain gender (for example, breast cancer in a male)
  • Certain combinations of diseases within a family (for example, breast and ovarian cancer or heart disease and diabetes)

Creating a family record

A number of programs are available that can assist you in assembling your family’s health information. One such free and easy-to-use Internet-based tool is the U.S. Surgeon General’s My Family Health Portrait. This program suggests the questions you should ask, assembles the information into a “pedigree” family tree and calculates your personal risk. This information can be downloaded and updated and is only available to you and those you choose to share it with. You can also share this information with other family members who want to start their own family tree. My Family Health Portrait does not keep a government record and employers and insurance companies cannot access your file. Go to for more information on how your information is kept private.

Ethnicity, health habits and personal health history also increase risk for certain conditions, so even when there isn’t a history of family illness, it’s a good idea to have a family health record. For example, African Americans and people of African American descent are more likely to develop heart failure without previous heart disease. Tobacco use increases risk for cancer and high blood pressure. Previous cancer treatments can increase risk for other cancers later.

The LHSFNA has a number of materials that can help Laborers make the lifestyle changes necessary to improve their health and reduce their risk for many illnesses and conditions. These include the Nutrition and Fitness for Laborers pamphlet and the Laborers’ Guide to Tobacco and Quit Smoking Survival Kit. These and other health and safety materials are available through the Fund’s Publications Catalogue. Go to and click on Publications to order.

[Janet Lubman Rathner]

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