Recording your family’s health history could save your life

Family Health History Image - Masterfile

You watch what you eat, take regular walks and get eight hours of shut-eye each night. But if you don’t know how your Aunt Myra died or what put Grandpa in a wheelchair, you may be missing vital information. That’s why more doctors are recommending patients compile a family health history—a document that details illnesses that run in their families.

“Finding out what runs in your family can help you predict problems you’re at risk for and take action to prevent them,” says Larry Thompson, M.S., a spokesperson for the National Human Genome Research Institute, which is exploring the genetic basis for many conditions. To uncover your health heritage:

Make a list

At a minimum, look at the health history of your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, as well as siblings and their children. “A good rule of thumb is at least three generations, or, even better, two generations up and two generations down,” says Robin L. Bennett, M.S., C.G.C., associate director of the Medical Genetics Clinic at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle. You should also note the age at which conditions developed, as well as at what age anyone passed away— and why.

If interviewing relatives isn’t possible, follow the paper trail. “Family bibles are a great source of information, as are any places where people have saved genealogical information,” says Kelly E. Ormond, M.S., C.G.C., associate professor of genetics and director of the MS in Human Genetics and Genetic Counseling program at Stanford University School of Medicine. Birth and death certificates, baby books and hospital medical records are also good sources.

Format findings

A good way to structure your information is by creating a family tree. “It allows you to put reams of medical records on one page,” says Bennett. “Plus, it’s easy to update.” It also allows you to easily discern recurring issues. “In general, a health problem that develops under age 50 could be a risk, especially if it occurs among more than one relative,” Bennett says.

Share your history

Ormond suggests letting your primary care doctor in on your research, and, ideally, updating it every year or two. If you and your physician discover worrisome health trends, you can devise a plan for reducing your risk of a given disease or catching it early. If colon cancer turns up frequently, for instance, you may need to start getting colonoscopies at an earlier age, and have them more frequently, than is usual. And tell other family members what you’ve found. “By sharing this information,” says Bennett, “you may be helping to save a life.”

Next Steps

Now that you’ve collected your family’s health history, how can it help you? According to Stanford’s Ormond, you can:

  • Adopt lifestyle measures such as exercise and eating well to help stave off diseases such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
  • Ask your doctor whether you should have screening tests earlier or at more frequent intervals than is generally recommended. Or discuss using more precise screening tools. For example, if you are at high risk for breast cancer, some doctors might recommend MRI in addition to mammograms.
  • Talk with your doctor about whether you would benefit from medications that lower risk for a disease that runs in your family.
  • If your doctor suggests it, visit a genetics specialist to assess your risks and test for certain diseases.

From our sister publication, REMEDY's Healthy Living (2007)

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at Healthcommunities.com

Published: 01 Oct 2007

Last Modified: 09 Jan 2015