(Photo | Fotolia.com)

Many Americans are making holiday plans now to be with family. Thanksgiving is one of the busiest times of year for travel, as last year the American Automobile Association, or “Triple A,” reported 48.7 million Americans were driving to spend time with loved ones.

Many of us can recall various lively holiday conversations through the years, but what we usually don’t consider discussing with family members is our health. And that is a critical missed opportunity.

As a Black mother of four children, I know too well the effects of staying silent about health concerns before and during the holidays.

My children lost their 47-year-old uncle in 2015. On his way to a family reunion, Derek decided to forego his plane ticket and take the 1,000 mile car trip from Denver to Houston to meet up with family and then drive an additional 300 miles to the family reunion in Natchez, Miss. This was a typical, unselfish act for Derek, a U.S. Air Force veteran.

Over three days, he spent more than 21 hours in the car; hours that were critical for Derek for health reasons that he did not share with his family.

Although Derek’s obesity was visible, and his history of diabetes and heart disease known, what his family didn’t know was that he was now self-administering life-sustaining, nightly dialysis treatments for kidney disease.

Those three days in the car meant three days without dialysis treatment. When he arrived in Natchez, Derek apologized to his mother for not having the strength to hug her and collapsed at her feet. Three hours later, Derek was pronounced dead in a Natchez hospital.

What happened to Derek is a tragic, common story of early death due to complications from heart and kidney disease, and one that could have been potentially prevented by sharing his new diagnosis and treatments with family.

Unfortunately, these kinds of stories are not uncommon, especially in black families.

Since 1970, The Centers for Disease Control report Black men have the lowest life expectancy of any racial group, living on average 71.9 years as compared to white males at 76.5 years. A multitude of stressors related to racial discrimination, community violence, mental health, unemployment and poverty create disparities that impede Black men from having the vital conversations with family, friends and health care providers that are essential in protecting their health and identifying family risk factors .

High blood pressure, diabetes, kidney disease and cancer and just a few health problems that disproportionately affect African American families.

According to the American Heart Association, more than 40 percent of African American men and women have high blood pressure which develops earlier in life and is usually more severe than their white counterparts.

The Center for Disease Control reports African American adults are 80 percent more likely than white adults to be diagnosed with diabetes and twice as likely to die from diabetes.

American Cancer Society reports that among males, African Americans have 12 percent higher death rates and are 27 percent more likely to die for cancer related deaths with the most common cancers being prostate, lung, colorectal, kidney and pancreas.
African Americans are 4.2 times more likely to be diagnosed with end stage kidney disease as compared to whites.

In addition to genetics, there are many important factors such as physical activity, eating and mental health that contribute to chronic disease health risks in African American families.

We know that obesity is related to many chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. The Centers for Disease Control report that 37.5 percent of African American men are obese, compared to 33.6 percent of white men.

According to the National Alliance of Mental Health, African Americans are 20 percent more likely to experience mental health problems such as depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder. Chronic stress, homelessness and violent crime are contributing factors.

There is a lack of communication in African American communities on the importance of seeking preventive appointments with primary care providers and managing care with their providers.

These conversations are important in preventing and managing disease. And the holidays are the ideal time to have them—before it is too late.

When family members get admitted to the hospital or pass away suddenly it’s important for the family to know why. Even more important is for the family to share individual health history to prevent sudden death and to understand early on about disease.

Sharing family history of chronic disease such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer can help identify risk factors and prevent death.

For example if your father, mother, brother or sister had diabetes, you may ask your healthcare provider how early you should be screened. If a family member had colorectal cancer before age 50 you can talk to your healthcare provider about whether you should start getting colonoscopies earlier or have them done more often.

This Thanksgiving either before or after you carve the holiday turkey, take some time to visit the U.S. Surgeon General’s online tool, My Family Health Portrait and create an online family health history. You will want to record the specific disease, who had the disease, his or her relationship to you, and the age the family member acquired the disease and or the age he or she died.

Certainly there are those concerned with private health information accessible on the Internet. But the surgeon general does not record your information or share it with anyone. Only the person who created or shared the password information has access to the records.

The information you fill in is never available to anyone else, unless you choose to share or disclose it. You can print and share this information with other family members and healthcare providers at your annual visits.

States including Illinois promote Thanksgiving as National Family History Day. It’s a great opportunity to talk about medical problems and health—no matter where you live.

Of course, critical family health history is not for a one-time conversation and is needed for men and women of all races and ethnicities. It is important to keep the conversation going at family reunions and get togethers. Circumstances change and health care providers taking care of every family member need this information to provide the best treatment.

The health history takes as little as 15 to 20 minutes but can help to reduce the five-year gap in life expectancy between Black and white men.

That adds up to five more Thanksgivings and holidays spent with the brothers, fathers, sons and uncles who may be the heart of the family.

Monique Reed, PhD, RN, is an Assistant Professor in Community, Systems and Mental Health Nursing at Rush University Medical Center and a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.