Do you have answers to your doctor’s questions about your family’s medical history? Do you know if a relative has or had cancer or diabetes? Are there certain conditions that run in the family that you should know about? If you have a close family member with a chronic disease, you may be at risk of developing that same disease yourself. Having a picture of your family’s medical history may be a good thing when it comes to proactively managing your health.
According to the United States Surgeon General, very few people are likely to have detailed and precise information about their family members and their health histories. Though having little information about your family health history is better than having none, a detailed health history can have important information for you, your children, and your health care team. So how can you make sure you know as much as possible about your family’s health history?
What Is Your Family Medical History?
Family health history simply refers to health and medical information about you and your close relatives. Knowledge of your family’s medical history is important for your health because it can help you and your health care providers identify whether you are at higher risk for certain health conditions, or even recommend ways to help lower your risk or screen for them.
Knowing your risk factors for various diseases can be your cue to speak to your health care providers and to get health screenings on a more regular basis. For example, you may want to see an eye doctor if glaucoma or other eye conditions run in your family. Or you may want to get a breast exam if you have a close relative with a history of breast cancer.
Does It Run in the Family?
A good way to learn about your family health history is to ask questions. It can be helpful to discuss the topic when several relatives are gathered together. Often, family reunions, parties, or holidays, such as Thanksgiving, can be a good time to ask questions about your family’s medical history.
Some questions you may ask can include:
- Are there any chronic conditions that run in the family that I should know about? Any close relatives with a history of chronic disease such as cancer, heart disease, or diabetes?
- Did any of our close relatives get diagnosed with a disease at young age?
- Do we have family health history information that I can share with my doctor?
- What else should we know about our family health history?
Your Family Health Tree
There are several ways to organize your family health history so that you can share it with your relatives or doctor. For example, record the names of your close relatives from both sides, and include conditions each family member has or had, and the age at which they were first diagnosed.
Another way to record your family health history is to use an Internet-based tool created by The Surgeon General, called "My Family Health Portrait." This free tool can assemble your information and create a health-history report that only you can access. The site is private, and does not record, keep, or share your personal or family information. When complete, you simply download a document of your family health history that you can share with whomever you choose.
The National Institutes of Health suggests that you record your family’s medical history with a drawing of your family tree, adding important health information for each member. The format you use isn’t as important as gathering the health-history information and sharing it with relatives and your health care team!
- 1. Cleveland Clinic. Family history: The importance of knowing your family history FAQ. Accessed October 16, 2016.
- 2. My Family Health Portrait. Learn more about my family health portrait. Questions & answers for consumers and practitioners. Department of Health and Human Services Web site. Accessed October 16, 2016.
- 3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Family health history checklist: Adults. Accessed October 16, 2016.
- 4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Family health history: the basics. Updated August 29, 2016. Accessed October 16, 2016.
- 5. National Society of Genetic Counselors. Your family health history: A DNA day activity. Accessed October 16, 2016.