How to create a family health history

Some health problems tend to run in families. Learn how creating a family health history can help you lower your risk.

You may have inherited more than your mother’s eyes and your dad’s chin. Some health risks are passed down from parent to child and affect multiple family members.

High blood pressure, diabetes and cancer are diseases that tend to run in families. You can’t change your genes, but a family health history can help point the way to a healthier future for you and your children.

Try an online tool, like My Family Health Portrait, from the U.S. Surgeon General. Then get started with these tools to take charge of your health.

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What is a family health history and why does it matter?

A family health history is a record of health problems that occur in your family. It includes details about health conditions, causes of death, learning and developmental problems, and habits like drug, alcohol and tobacco use.

It’s important to know about family health problems so you can do all you can to prevent them. Does that mean if your parents had a health problem you and your children will get it too? Not necessarily.

Many factors play a role in your risk, including diet, exercise and your environment. But having family health problems may mean you have a higher risk than someone who doesn’t have a family history of the disease.

A medical family history is a good way to keep track of diseases that run in your family and can help you:

  • Assess your risk for a disease
  • Make lifestyle changes to lower your risk
  • Detect signs and symptoms so you can get treatment early  

Creating your family health history

Recording a family health history can help you see specific risks that can affect your health and your children’s health. Armed with this information, you can take steps now for better health down the road. Here’s how to get started.

1. Talk with family members

For a complete family medical history, you will need to gather health information about:

  • Parents
  • Grandparents
  • Aunts and uncles
  • Cousins
  • Sisters and brothers
  • Children

Family gatherings or reunions can be a good time to gather information. But it’s important to be thoughtful. Talking about health issues can make some family members feel uncomfortable. Find a private place to talk. Explain why you want to know about their health and how it will help you and others in your family.

Here are some questions to ask:

  • When were you born and what is your age today?
  • Do you have any chronic health conditions?
  • Have you had other serious illnesses?
  • How old were you when you first developed the condition or illness?
  • Has anyone in the family had birth defects?
  • What about learning or developmental problems, like Down’s syndrome?
  • Did any family members have mental health issues?
  • What illnesses did late family members have?
  • How old were they when they died?
  • What was the cause of death?

Don’t worry if family members don’t know or can’t recall some information. You may be able to fill these gaps with a bit of research.

2. Fill in information gaps

The more blanks you can fill, the more informed you can be about your health risks. If you are unable to get complete health information for every family member, try checking public records or newspapers.

State and county records may include death certificates that list cause of death. Local libraries may also have an archive of old newspapers where you can find an obituary notice. You can also look one up online. If a family member is adopted, check with the adoption agency or a local health or social service agency.

3. Keep your history up-to-date

Write down what you find out and add new health information as you learn about it. You can keep your family health history in a paper file or on your computer, where you can easily share it and keep it up-to-date.

4. Share with your doctor

Once you’ve created a family health history, share it with your doctor on your next visit. Your doctor can help you assess your health risks and make sure you get the right tests and screenings to detect problems early. Your doctor can also suggest lifestyle changes that can lower your risk for some health conditions.