How To Learn More About Your Family’s Health History

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Written by Ron Martin
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3 minutes

What is Family History And Why Is It Important? 

Your family’s medical history is a record of medical conditions and illnesses that affect your family members. Since you inherit half of your genetic profile from each parent, understanding your family’s health history can help you better understand your own health. For example, you may inherit genes that could increase your risk of developing certain medical conditions. On the other hand, your genes may indicate you are at a lower risk for developing a medical condition.  Compiling your family’s medical history can reveal health patterns in your family and help guide your own health decisions. 

Related: Are You Caring For An Aging Parent? Download Our Comprehensive Caregiver's Guide

What Kind Of Family Medical Information Should I Look For? 

You should attempt to find out the following information about your parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins:  

  • Sex

  • Date of birth

  • Major medical conditions 

  • Mental health conditions 

  • Pregnancy complications

  • Causes of death 

  • Age at disease diagnosis 

  • Age at death 

  • Ethnic background 

How To Collect Your Family’s Health History 

Ask Your Family Members 

Write down the names of your close living relatives on both sides of the family. Talk to each family member about the information listed above. Since discussing health conditions is a sensitive topic, consider the following tips: 

  • Share your purpose: Explain that you’re compiling the family’s health history and why it’s important for you to keep an updated record. 

  • Provide options: Some people may want to discuss their health conditions face to face or over the phone, while others may prefer answering by mail or email.  

  • Ask before sharing information:  If you want to share your findings with other family members, be sure to first ask for your relative’s permission and respect their decisions around privacy.  

Log Your Family’s Information 

After you’ve gathered the information, write it down. The U.S. Surgeon General has created an online tool to help you create and store your family’s medical history. Of course, you can always record your health history on your computer or using a pen and paper.  

What If I’m Adopted? 

Your family’s health history may have been shared during the adoption process, so ask your adoptive parents if they have information about your birth parents. If they don’t have information, check out your state’s adoption record statutes. You may be able to reach out to the adoption agency and request your birth parents’ health histories.  

What If I Can’t Ask About My Family Health History? 

There may be some cases in which you can’t directly ask your family about their health history. In those instances, follow these tips: 

  • Look at records: You may be able to find out the cause of death from your family members using online death certificates, obituaries, and other records. Search for state-specific records or check ancestry sites. 

  • Talk to the family members you’re connected with: You may not need to talk with every family member to collect your family’s health history. Reach out to other relatives to see what information they can provide.  

  • Don’t Guess: If you’re not sure about the cause of a family death or if a family member has a disease, don’t guess. It’s better to have some details missing than an inaccurate health history. 

Understanding your family’s health history helps you be more proactive when it comes to your health. By sharing this information with your doctor, you can complete screens for conditions you may be predisposed to and make lifestyle choices that can decrease your risk. 

Written by:

Ron Martin

Vice President of the Nutrients Division

Ron Martin is the Vice President of the Nutrients Division at Kaneka North America. Ron’s dedication to lifelong learning and belief that “one cannot know too much” inspired a decades-long career centered around educating the public about health.

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