Why is it important to know my family history?

Family members share more than similar looks. You may recognize that you have your father’s curly hair or your mother’s button nose. But it’s not so easy to see that your great-grandmother passed along an increased risk for both breast and ovarian cancer.

That’s why discovering and knowing your family health history is important. Your medical history includes all the traits your family shares that you can’t see. These traits may increase your risk for many hereditary conditions and diseases, including:

  • cancer
  • diabetes
  • asthma
  • heart disease and blood clots
  • Alzheimer’s disease and dementia
  • arthritis
  • depression
  • high blood pressure and high cholesterol

Keep reading to learn how to gather your health history and what information you should include.

Whose history do I need?

The general rule for family health history is that more is better. First, you’ll want to focus on immediate family members who are related to you through blood. Start with your parents, siblings, and children.

If they’re still alive, grandparents are another great place to start. They may know partial histories of many members of your family.

You can also gather information from your aunts and uncles, and other blood relatives.

Family members to includeFamily members you don’t need to include
parentsstepparents and stepsiblings
siblingsadoptive parents and adoptive siblings
your childrenspouses, unless they’re also related by blood
aunts and unclesaunts and uncles who married into your family (meaning they aren’t siblings of one of your parents)
nieces and nephewsspouses of your siblings, unless they’re related by blood
grandparents and great-grandparents

Once you move beyond this core circle of family, genetic makeups change so greatly that you may not be able to learn much about your own risk. Still, keep information handy for any family members you learn about during your search for medical history. It may be helpful down the road.

How can I gather this information?

Talking about health may not come naturally to you or your family. You can start the conversation by letting your family members know why you want to gather health information. Also, let them know that you’re willing to share information with them, so that you can all have more complete health histories. It may be easier to start out by having one-on-one conversations.

Get the right information

When you’re ready to gather family health history information, keep these things in mind:

Major medical issues: Ask about every major medical issue anyone in close relation to you has been diagnosed with. In this fact-finding stage, nothing is too small, though issues are only significant if the cause was genetic. Lyme disease, injuries, and other things caused by external factors can’t be inherited.

Causes of death: Find out the cause of death for any family members who’ve passed away. That might provide a clue to your family medical history, too.

Age of onset: Ask when each family member was diagnosed with each condition. This may help your doctor recognize the early onset of certain diseases.

Ethnic background: Different ethnicities have varying levels of risk for certain conditions. As best you can, identify your ethnic background to help spot potential health risks.

Environment: Families share common genes, but they also share common environments, habits, and behaviors. A complete family history also includes understanding what factors in your environment could impact your health.

5 questions to ask

Here are some questions you can ask to start the conversation:

  1. How old was my relative when they died, and what was the cause of death?
  2. Are there health problems that run in the family?
  3. Is there a history of pregnancy loss or birth defects in my family?
  4. What allergies do people in my family have?
  5. What is my ethnicity? (Some conditions are common among certain ethnicities.)

How do I record the details?

Make sure you write down or electronically document the health information your relatives provide. You can use this form to record your family health history. Just fill out one form per family member. You can also fill out a form for yourself, and share that with your family members.

family health chart

Once you’ve collected all this information, you need to store it somewhere safe. You can use your own personal computer, but safe digital storage options are also available. For example, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services and the surgeon general offer a web-based tool called Family Health Portrait. You can store, save, and share your family history using this tool. Look for other options, like ancestry websites and smartphone apps.

What should I do with this information?

Knowing your own health history is important, but sharing it with your doctor may be more important. That’s because your doctor can help you interpret what it means for your current lifestyle, suggest prevention tips, and decide on screening or testing options for conditions you may be more at risk for developing.

The genes you’re born with can’t be changed or altered. If you know your family history, you’re one step ahead of the game. You can take the initiative to adopt healthier lifestyle habits. For example, you could decide to stop smoking or drinking alcohol, or to start exercising regularly and maintaining a healthy weight. These lifestyle changes may reduce your chances for developing hereditary conditions.

Is incomplete information still useful?

Even a family health history that’s incomplete is still useful to your doctor. Share any information you have with them.

For example, if you know that your sibling was diagnosed with colon cancer at age 35, your doctor may suspect a possible genetic issue. They may then decide it’s important that you have regular colon cancer screenings before the recommended age of 50. Your doctor may also suggest you undergo genetic counseling or testing to identify any genetic risks.

What if I was adopted?

Environment plays an important part in your health history, and you can get the details for this from your adoptive family. Learning more about your birth family’s health history may require a large investment of time and energy.

Ask your adoptive parents if they have any information about your birth parents. It’s possible family health history information was shared during the adoption process. If not, ask the agency that arranged the adoption if they retained any personal health history information for your birth parents. Understand your state’s statutes before you begin requesting adoption history information.

If all of these avenues come up short, you may need to make a choice about seeking out your birth parents. You may not wish to pursue that route, or you may be unable to connect with them. In that case, alert your doctor to your personal history. The two of you can then work to identify ways to screen for and detect your risk of certain conditions.

What if I’m estranged from my family?

If you’re estranged from only part of your family, you can try a few things to collect your family health history:

Talk to the family members you’re connected with. You may not need to reconnect with your whole family to collect your family health history.

Reach out via your doctor. Some medical offices may be able to send out questionnaires to family members asking for information in an official capacity. This may prompt people to respond.

Do some research. You may be able to discover the cause of death of your relatives from death certificates. Search online to find state-specific death records or check ancestry sites for this information. Obituaries, often available online or archived by public libraries, might also provide health information.

What about genetic testing and genetic predisposition?

Certain ethnic backgrounds and races may be predisposed to conditions for which a genetic test is useful. For example, women of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry have an increased risk for breast cancer. A specific gene mutation is more common in these women than in other women. Genetic screening may help your doctor detect this gene mutation and prepare you for treatment options early.

Although genetic tests can help identify potential risks you may have inherited for a specific disease, they don’t guarantee that you’ll develop that disease. Results may show you have a predisposition to several conditions. While you may never actually develop any of these, you might feel the added anxiety isn’t worth the knowledge. Seriously consider the benefits and concerns you may have with knowing your genetic risk factors before you do any testing.

Outlook

Knowing your health history helps you to be more proactive about your health. Share this information with your doctor so they can screen early for conditions you’re predisposed to and suggest lifestyle choices that can help reduce your risk.

Also talk to your doctor if you need more help figuring out how to uncover your health history or what questions you should ask.