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.
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.
Other resources are available as well. The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, also part of the Natioinal Institutes of Health, publishes a free downloadable guide, the Family Reunion Kidney Health Guide, with tips about kidney health and how it relates to diabetes, hypertension, genetics and living conditions. The guide discusses how to present a 15-minute workshop on kidney health and how to talk one-on-one with family members who may be at risk for kidney disease. The National Kidney Foundation has a one-minute quiz on kidney disease that leads respondents to more information and resources.
“Family reunions are an opportunity to address family history and to talk about genetic ancestry, but also to think about health and incorporating physical activity [and] healthy food into the family reunion,” says Joseph Vassalotti, M.D., chief medical officer for the National Kidney Foundation. “It might be a good opportunity for people and their families to talk about healthy behaviors and also engage with clinicians that they trust.”
Sharing health history is important, he says, in order to identify risks of kidney disease such as high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and obesity. Relatives should also be made aware if there’s a family history of kidney failure or the need for a kidney transplant.
How can you take advantage of family get-togethers to encourage healthy habits and share health information? Here are five suggestions:
When Harper-Hogan’s extended family took a cruise a few years ago, relatives planned fitness and healthy-eating challenges that encouraged participants to get moving or skip dessert. Some family members organized and attended a fitness boot camp for several years. “The thing that impresses me most about my husband’s family is that they’re still carrying it on, even virtually during COVID,” she says. Koehly, who lives in Washington, D.C., and her sister in California walk “together” while chatting on the phone three times a week.
The NIH guide to kidney health suggests pairing each family member with a health “buddy” so the two can regularly check in with each other to offer support and encouragement. Consider who would be most effective as a health mentor, Koehly says. “Maybe with that younger generation, really identifying who are the people in the family that play a salient, significant role in [their] lives,” she says. “My uncle may be more salient to my brother, but my aunt more salient to me.”
If you can normalize talking about your family health, that makes it easier to talk when you might be going through a health crisis and you need someone to come in and provide support, Koehly says. “The more talking that you do on this front, the easier it is to utilize those resources later when you might need them,” she says.
The National Kidney Foundation tries to engage and empower people through personal narratives about kidney disease, says Vassalotti. You can adopt a similar strategy for your own family, perhaps by making health just one more thread in family stories or histories. People also need to understand on a personal level why maintaining good health and sharing information is important, Harper-Hogan says. She tells her family: “If you have grandkids, your goal in life is to live until your youngest grandkid gets out of high school. That’s why I’m sitting here talking to you about blood pressure today.”
Besides physical factors, risks for kidney disease, as well as other diseases, also include social determinants of health such as transportation to medical appointments, access to stores that sell healthy food and availability of fitness opportunities, Vassalotti says. And since some people may distrust clinicians, he encourages the use of experts within your own family to provide trustworthy connections or advice. Also consider creating a system to help relatives with grocery shopping, transportation or other issues of daily living that put family members at risk.
Article written for AARP