5 ways a family reunion can foster healthy habits

​“A person’s family medical history shapes their clinical care,” she says. That could mean someone with a strong family history for cancer will be screened more often or at an earlier age. It encourages families to share health issues, even if they don’t more live nearby It inspires family members to work on prevention and bridges the generations as they collect and share information, she says.​

One way to get started is with the free online tool My family health portrait, developed by US Surgeon General. The form can be downloaded, shared with other family members and updated as new health information becomes available. Koehly suggests appointing a family curator to look after it. Her institute is working on more tools to train families on how to collect and document health information.​

Other resources are also available. The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, also part of the National Institutes of Health, publishes a free downloadable guide, the Guide to Kidney Health at Family Reunions, with tips on kidney health and how it relates to diabetes, high blood pressure, genetics and lifestyle. The guide explains how to present a 15-minute workshop on kidney health and how to have one-on-one meetings with family members who may be at risk for kidney disease. The National Kidney Foundation offers a one-minute quiz kidney disease this leads respondents to more information and resources.​

​“Family reunions are an opportunity to delve into family history and talk about genetic lineage, but also to reflect on health and physical activity [and] healthy nutrition into family reunification,” says Dr. Joseph Vassalotti, Chief Medical Officer of the National Kidney Foundation. “It could be a good opportunity for people and their families to talk about healthy behaviors and also connect with clinicians they trust.”​

Sharing medical history is important, he says, to identify risks of kidney diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and obesity. Family members should also be made aware if there is a family history of kidney failure or the need for a kidney transplant.​​

How can you use family gatherings to promote healthy habits and share health information? Here are five suggestions:​

1. Make health a pleasure

When Harper-Hogan’s extended family took a cruise a few years ago, relatives planned fitness and healthy eating challenges that encouraged participants to exercise or skip dessert. A few family members organized and attended a fitness boot camp for several years. “What impresses me the most about my husband’s family is that they’re still doing it, even practically during COVID,” she says. Koehly, who lives in Washington, DC, and her sister in California “go together” while on the phone three times a week.​

2. Appoint health mentors and build connections

The NIH Guide to Kidney Health suggests matching each family member with a “health partner” so the two can visit each other regularly to offer support and encouragement. Think about who would be most effective as a health mentor, says Koehly. “Maybe with that younger generation to really identify who are the people in the family who play prominent, significant roles [their] lives,” she says. “My uncle may be more important to my brother, but my aunt is more important to me.”​

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