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Do You Know Your Family's Health History?

Fall and winter gatherings remind us of the ties that bind – and present an opportunity to learn about health problems that run in your family.

medical history form and green pen

Maybe a big family dinner isn’t the exact right moment to bring it up, but medical experts recommend you find a moment to ask relatives about which diseases and conditions seem to run in your family.

Knowing this information helps you fill out forms at the doctor’s office and helps your health care team understand if you’re at risk for heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and rare conditions. The World Health Organization lists a family history among the list of risk factors for hypertension (high blood pressure), a silent and serious medical condition that affects more than 1 billion adults.

These health inventories are especially important when meeting with a genetic counselor to discuss planning to have a baby. A detailed family health history can identify if a child could be at risk of rare diseases, which are often genetic, meaning that they are passed down from parents to kids.

How to collect your family health history

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • Discuss and record the family health history of parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews. Ask about any chronic diseases and at what age (approximately) the family member was diagnosed.
  • For family members who have passed away, learn the cause of death and how old they were when they died.
  • Ask family members about the results of any genetic testing.

“Knowing your family health history is so important in helping to identify potential health conditions early,” said Rick, who is living with hemophilia. “My brother, daughter and grandson also have hemophilia and because of this, we openly discuss the disease and how to manage it so that the whole family is educated, which may help future generations with the disease.”  

In the United States, the Surgeon General made National Family History Day the same day as Thanksgiving, so while families are gathering, they can get informed about health risks. An early heads-up can prompt good preventive care, such as screenings for certain conditions, genetic testing or changes in diet or exercise routines.

The Surgeon General also offers an online tool for collecting family history information. Visit My Family Health Portrait