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Family Times
Wednesday, July 8, 2009 • Posted July 8, 2009

Family Health History

A family health history is a record of illnesses and medical conditions affecting your family members. Similar to a family tree, a family health history includes information for each person about diseases, causes of death and other health information. Americans know that family history is important to health. A recent survey found that 96 percent of Americans believe that knowing their family history is important; however, only one-third have tried to gather their family’s health history.

Health professionals know that some common diseases - heart disease, cancer and diabetes - and rare diseases - hemophilia, cystic fibrosis, and sickle cell anemia - run in families. If one generation has high blood pressure, it is not unusual for the next generation to have high blood pressure. Though a family health history cannot predict your future health, it may provide information about risk. Other factors, such as diet, weight, exercise, and exposure environmental factors, may raise or lower your risk of developing certain diseases. Your health provider may use your family health history to

    * Assess your risk of certain diseases * Recommend changes in diet or other lifestyle habits that can lower disease risk * Determine diagnostic tests to order and recommend treatments * Determine the type and frequency of screening tests * Determine whether you or family members should get a specific test

A family health history should include at least three generations.

Compile information about your grandparents, parents, uncles and aunts, siblings, cousins, children, nieces and nephews and grandchildren. Gather as much accurate information as possible and do not expect to find answers to all your questions. For each person, try to gather

    * Sex * Date of birth * For deceased relatives, age at the time of death and cause of death * Diseases or other medical conditions and age of onset * Diet, exercise habits, smoking habits or history of weight problems

Include information about race and ethnicity because the risk of a particular disorder may be greater in one group than in others. Ask about the occurrence of diseases and medical conditions often associated with genetics, including but not limited to

    * Cancer * Heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and/or stroke * Diabetes * Mental illness * Kidney disease * Alcoholism or other substance abuse * Birth defects

Give your health provider a copy of your family health history and ask him or her to review it with you. Your health provider may ask you questions for clarification and may help you interpret the relevance of certain patterns.

Update your family health history every couple of years and provide your health provider with a revised copy.

Not everyone may be comfortable disclosing personal medical information. Be aware of a number of factors that may contribute to a person’s reluctance to discuss medical issues including, but not limited to, feelings of shame, painful memories and lack of understanding of medical conditions or value of a family health history. Look for ways to address this sometimes sensitive topic with family members such as wording questions carefully, being a good listener and respecting privacy.

Because a family health history is such a powerful screening tool, the Surgeon General has created a computerized tool to help make it fun and easy to create. My Family Health Portrait that provides a template in both English and Spanish for inputting information and generating a family health history. My Family Health Portrait helps users organize information and then print it for their health provider. In addition, the tool helps users save their information to their own computer and even share with other family members. This free tool may be accessed at

Your family may want to work together on developing your family medical history. Holidays and reunions may provide a good opportunity to gather information, fill in gaps and talk to those who may remember details about the health of deceased family members. Each year since 2004, the Surgeon General has declared Thanksgiving to be National Family History Day. Over the holiday or at other times when families gather, the Surgeon General encourages Americans to talk about and write down the health problems that seem to run in their family.

Source: Andrew B. Crocker, Texas AgriLife Extension Program Specialist - Gerontology Health

For information, visit the Office of the Surgeon General:

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