Compiling a Family Health History
A family health history can be a valuable tool to help you manage your risk for many inherited diseases.

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Compiling a Family Health History

You may know that your hazel eyes come from your mom or your big ears from your dad's side of the family. But these obvious physical features are not all you inherited. Disease risk can also be passed down from generation to generation.

Many health conditions and diseases can run in families. For example, if your mother, her father and grandfather all had high cholesterol, there's a stronger risk that you will, too. The same is true for families who have a generational history of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and other common and rare diseases. Tracing the health portrait of your parents, grandparents and other blood relatives can help your doctor predict disorders you may be at risk for and take action to keep you and your family healthy.

Because family health history is such a powerful screening tool, the U.S. Surgeon General has created a new computerized tool to help make it fun and easy to create a portrait of your family's health.

What goes into a family health portrait?
Try to gather information about at least three generations. Start with yourself and your children, if any. Add your parents, your brothers and sisters and their kids. Then, go back to your grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. For each side of your family, include their race and ethnic origin, which can be important in pinpointing some diseases. Be aware that not all family members may wish to disclose their personal health information, so for living family members it's a good idea to ask permission first before interviewing them or doing health history research.

Facts about each person should include:

  • Gender
  • Year of birth
  • If dead, age and cause of death
  • Diseases and medical problems, and age at which each problem started
  • Lifestyle factors that affect disease risk, such as smoking, exercise habits and weight issues

List diseases or conditions that may be inherited, such as:

  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Cancer
  • Asthma
  • Mental illnesses
  • High blood pressure
  • Stroke
  • High cholesterol
  • Kidney disease
  • Arthritis
  • Learning disabilities
  • Birth defects

Where can I get this information?
A great way to learn about your family health history is by talking to older family members. Holidays, family reunions and visits can be good times to ask these questions. In fact, since 2004, Thanksgiving Day has been designated as National Family History Day by the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General. Family records, baby books, family trees and newspaper death notices can help fill in the blanks. And be sure to check public sources, such as birth and death certificates and marriage licenses.

Resources for making a family health history:

  • My Family Health Portrait is an online tool provided by the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General.
  • Draw it the same way you'd draw a family tree. Use branches showing the connections between family members.
  • Make it in list form, similar to a health history you'd fill out at your doctor's office.

You can take steps to reduce your risk of many diseases. For example:

  • If your family has a history of heart disease, talk with your doctor to learn what steps you can take to prevent and control your risk. Some common recommendations include eating healthier foods, exercising more to maintain a healthy weight and not smoking.
  • Women who have a family history of breast cancer should talk to their doctor about their risk and the options for screening, medication and genetic testing to prevent the disease.

What should I do with my family health history?
When completed, give a copy to your doctor, who will use it to advise you on screening, prevention or treatment options. Store a copy of your family health history with your important papers. Review and update it every few years, making sure your doctor has the latest version.

Learning about your family's health history can help ensure a longer, healthier future together for all of you.

By Susan Warner, Contributing Writer
Created on 02/27/2008
Updated on 06/06/2013
  • National Society of Genetic Counselors. Your family history.
  • National Office of Public Health Genomics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Family health history.
  • United States Department of Health and Human Services. Surgeon General’s family health history initiative.
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