MONDAY, Nov. 8, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- After you and your family have finished your second helping of mashed potatoes and gravy this Thanksgiving, you might want to take Grandpa aside and ask him about his cholesterol.

U.S. health officials are urging you to do it not to be nosy, but because it could have a direct impact on your own health: All Americans, they say, should begin tracing their medical roots this holiday season. Asking relatives to help fill in the blanks of your family medical history could be one of the most important things you do to predict your risk for developing such chronic conditions as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer, they said.

"This initiative focuses on a single simple concept: Knowing your family's history can save your life," said Dr. Richard H. Carmona, the U.S. Surgeon General. Armed with that information, you and your health-care provider can work together to ensure that you receive appropriate medical screenings and preventive care, he explained.

Carmona joined with several officials of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in Washington on Monday to announce the "Family History Initiative" and to declare this Thanksgiving the first annual "National Family History Day."

A recent survey by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 96 percent of Americans believe that knowing their family history is important to their health. But only a third have tried to collect the data and organize it in a useful way, said Dr. Muin Khoury, director of the CDC's Office of Genomics and Disease Prevention.

To aid the effort, HHS released a free computer tool, called "My Family Health Portrait," that organizes key health information into a printout that people can share with their physician. Another 100,000 hard copies, in English and Spanish, will be made available to people who do not have computer access or who are uncomfortable using a computer.

"You might not know that Uncle Billy has high cholesterol or Aunt Suzie has low bone density," Carmona said, as an example. But once you have that information, you can begin to build a health portrait that hints at future health risks.

"Knowing your family history is a peek into your own genome," he added.

Carmona, a self-described "recovering surgeon," foresees a day when genomic information will be used to detect and treat diseases in their earliest stages -- perhaps even before surgery is required -- and to create individualized disease prevention plans.

The online tool is private, health officials stressed. HHS would never have access to a person's family history, nor would any other entity. However, once a patient hands off that information to their physician, it becomes part of that person's medical record. While federal privacy rules ban the inappropriate distribution of private health information pertaining to patients enrolled in group health plans, there is a lingering concern that details of a person's record could be used to boost premiums or deny coverage. Congress may address such loopholes in the future.

At the moment, the government's family history initiative strikes a particularly strong chord with 30-year-old Russell Balmer, a new father with a checkered medical history. Balmer, speaking at the news conference on Monday, said his own father died after a massive heart attack at the age of 62. His mother died from metastatic breast cancer; his father-in-law was a victim of Alzheimer's disease. Balmer himself is now battling high cholesterol.

"So you can see we have cause for concern in our son's future medical [condition)," he said.

For the sake of 4-month-old Little Russ, Balmer's family will be gathering medical details from blood relatives this holiday season. "We're going to fill in our family medical history, and I encourage every American to do the same," he said.

More information

Visit the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to download the free Family Health Portrait.

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