It’s during these events that we notice what we’ve inherited from our relatives. Perhaps you share your mother’s eye and hair color, your father’s sense of humor, and your grandmother’s tendency to go overboard on the holiday decorations. There’s a lot you can learn about yourself by looking at your family.
Your family can also offer some important insights into your health, which can help your doctor provide better care for you. That’s where a family health history can help.
What’s a Family Health History and Why Does It Matter?
A complete family health history includes information from three generations of relatives, including:
- Aunts and uncles
- Brothers and sisters
- Nieces and nephews
This information can help your doctor determine whether you’re at greater risk for certain conditions that tend to run in families — such as heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, certain cancers, diabetes and glaucoma — as well as less common conditions such as cystic fibrosis and sickle cell disease.
When you know your family health history, you can make lifestyle changes to reduce your risk. It also allows your doctor to recommend more frequent checkups or screening — such as mammograms, colonoscopy or diabetes testing — starting at an earlier age. This additional attention can ensure disease is discovered at the earliest stages, when it’s most treatable.
Let’s Talk About Health
At your next family gathering, you may still have to listen to Aunt Nancy’s bragging about your cousin Bob’s successor or Grandpa’s yearly tirade about his neighbor’s disrespectful kids, but it’s also a great time to gather your family health history.
Explain why it’s important to have this information and how it benefits the entire family. If it’s uncomfortable, you may want to simply introduce the idea and then follow up with relatives individually later.
Questions to ask include:
- Do you have any chronic diseases, such as heart disease or diabetes, or health conditions such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol?
- Have you had any other serious diseases, such as cancer or stroke?
- Have you had any pregnancy complications, such as miscarriage, stillbirth, birth defects or infertility?
- Have you had a mental health issue, such as depression or substance abuse?
- How old were you when each of these conditions was diagnosed?
- For relatives who’ve died, find out about the cause and age of death.
If you don’t already know, ask where your parents’ families came from. It’s important to know because some health problems are more common in different ethnicities. Medical records and other personal documents, such as obituaries and death certificates, can help you complete your family medical history.
Compile It, Share It
The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services offers an easy-to-use online tool to input and save your family history. Visit My Family Health Portrait to input, save and update your family history. You can print it and share it with family members, then go over the information with your doctor — and encourage others to do the same.
As children are born and illnesses arise, update your family medical history and tell your doctor about changes that are relevant to your health.
Although creating a family health history takes time, it can help improve your family’s health for generations to come. This could be the most important gift you give your family this holiday season.