Black History Month is a time for us to remember, share, and celebrate the achievements and contributions of notable Black figures. It’s also a great time for us as a Black community to remember and learn more about our own history and families to better understand ourselves and where we come from. Our bloodline and DNA don’t just tell the story of who we are, but they also provide us with information about our health. That’s why developing a family health history, a record of health information about a person and three generations of his or her relatives, is important. Not enough of us know our unique health histories and hereditary risk factors. Black History Month is the perfect time to talk about and create a family health history.
One of the most significant memories that I have growing up is the day that my mother came home from the doctor and said to my sister and me that she had something important to tell us. When my mother was 40, she sat our family down and shared that she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, which is a chronic disease that currently has no cure but can be managed by taking insulin and monitoring glucose levels up to 10 times a day. I distinctly remember the look on her face before she said anything. She was concerned, but it was more for her children than it was for herself—about how it may change our lives because of potential hereditary risk for us and our children in the future.
At the time, I was only 14 and didn’t fully grasp the severity of the disease, nor did I understand the genetic impact. The risk for diabetes (both type 1 and type 2) is higher for those with a family member who has the disease. I know now that in my family health history, this disease stretches back to my great grandfather and reached three other generations—including my grandfather, uncle, mother, and young cousin who have all been diagnosed. What I’ve recently learned is that the disease could be more likely to occur in an individual whose father has the disease, which is exactly the case for each of my family members who have been diagnosed. According to the American Diabetes Association, researchers are still trying to discover what factors can put you more at risk for type 1 diabetes. The odds are not clear, but African Americans that have the gene called HLA-DR7 may be at higher risk than those who don’t have the gene. Although I have not been diagnosed with diabetes, I’ve had my own health challenges, which I read could potentially be linked to having a parent with diabetes.
Stories like mine are not uncommon in many families. There are many Black people who don’t know that diseases and conditions, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and certain cancers, run in their families. Black people face social and economic disparities, such as less access to health care and information, that put them at heightened risk for bad health. In fact, the life expectancy of African Americans is four years less than Whites, and young African Americans under the age of 50 live with and die from diseases that typically happen in older ages. The health disparities that exist are alarming, but knowing and understanding the breadth of family health concerns could help us take preventative steps toward good health. A family health history isn’t just beneficial for each individual; If we encourage each other to prioritize our health by sharing information with each other, together we can work toward improving the health of our families, community, and future generations.
Often, health can be a sensitive and difficult topic to bring up with our families, and health information may many times be a “hidden” piece of our history. But what I’ve learned from my work at Hager Sharp and in communications is how important it is to recognize social and cultural barriers and share tools and resources to help people overcome them.
Here’s how those same ideas can apply to and encourage the Black community to create a family health history:
- Tap into the power of storytelling to educate and engage your audience. Stories have the power to connect us to who we are, influence our emotions, and help us commit what is important to us to memory. Storytelling is one of the many long-held traditions in Black culture that stems from the African diaspora. Embracing storytelling can help open up conversations between family members to talk about health.
- Listen. Though talking is an important aspect of communication, listening is just as important. When developing a family health history, it is necessary to listen to understand and gather the information needed. To take listening a step further, we also need to consider listening actively by asking questions, repeating the information for accuracy, and responding appropriately. Listening to each other not only can help gather the information needed to develop a family health history, but it can also help us build stronger relationships, strengthen trust, and encourage healthy conversations between family members.
- Identify opinion leaders and influencers. If the goal is to encourage family members to share information and take preventative steps for better health, consider who the influencers are within the family or community. The message can hold more weight and value depending on who delivers it. Whether it’s the matriarch or patriarch of the family, or even an outside influencer such as a pastor or other well-known community leader, having an influential figure can help our families and communities understand the importance of knowing about our health.
- Promote transparency and relationship-building to create trust. Within the Black community there are long-held beliefs and stigmas that prevent us from sharing health information, including fear of exposure, judgment, and shame. Offering a safe space for transparent conversation and using communications tools can help open the door to knowledge sharing. Encouraging the use of resources like the My Family Health Portrait Tool in safe spaces, such as family reunions or holiday gatherings, can help influence or change beliefs about sharing health information.
At Hager Sharp, we value people from diverse backgrounds and the opportunity to reflect multiple voices in our work. We work tirelessly to help people live healthier lives and understand how imperative it is to consider the specific health concerns of multicultural audiences. And I hope that this is a commitment that we will all make. Now is the time for us to carry out the tradition of sharing stories and information to better understand our histories, improve our health, and pave the way for future generations.
Chelsie Pope, MPS