The best gift your family can give you this holiday

The U.S. surgeon general is offering a little holiday advice on Twitter.

Dr. Vivek Murthy tweeted, "We can take charge of our health. One way to do that is knowing your #FamilyHealthHistory."

He's recommending that families who gather for celebrations take the opportunity to talk about their health history. Knowing your family history of conditions like high blood pressure or cancer could help you make smarter decisions about what health screenings you need and other preventive measures.

Murthy included a link to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' "My Family Health Portrait" website where visitors can create and save a record of their family's history of conditions such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease, for example.

It also helps you learn more about your risk for certain conditions that run in your family, and you can print out family information to share with your relatives and health care provider.

But gathering the info may require a little sensitivity. Plopping down next to grandma and quizzing her on her heart medications and past surgeries may not be the way to go, Dr. Lindsey Mcilvena told CBS News.

A San Diego-based integrative medicine physician specializing in nutritional and chronic disease prevention, Mcilvena recommends a more roundabout approach.

"Make it more about, 'I'm wanting to stay healthy or get healthier and my doctor recommended I get a good family history of what diseases run in our family. Approach it so it doesn't feel like an interrogation, but more like a curiosity," said Mcilvena.

She said if you're talking with baby boomer parents and it feels uncomfortable to pry, start not by asking about their health issues, but about their parents' -- what's their health like now, or how did they die.

"Come at it sideways though other generations," she said, and they may be more likely to share their personal health history as the conversation goes on.

She said collecting information about diseases and conditions known to have genetic links is important, including cancers, type 2 diabetes, kidney disease, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

Mcilvena said it's also important to note that family members who don't have these conditions aren't necessarily destined to get them. "Heart disease runs in my family, for instance. It's important to know I have that predisposition." But healthy eating habits, maintaining a healthy weight, being physically active and keeping stress under control all play powerful roles in helping lower someone's risk for such conditions.

Keeping a family health "portrait" offers lots of benefits, the government website suggests. It can help your health care practitioner provide better care for you and identify your risk for some diseases -- letting you both keep an eye out for early warning signs of disease through screening tests, for example.

It takes about 15 minutes to fill out the "My Family Health Portrait" tool and the information is private, according to the website. It says the government does not keep a record of the information you fill in and your health information is not accessible to anyone else but you.

University of Rochester Medical Center physical therapist Elizabeth Wetmore told CBS News you can help your loved ones travel the road to good health simply by encouraging family walks or backyard soccer games during your holiday events.

Wetmore, also a certified strength and conditioning specialist and a certified exercise physiologist, said to be sensitive to the physical condition of older or unfit relatives and go at the pace that suits them best.

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    Mary Brophy Marcus covers health and wellness for CBSNews.com