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Gather and Share Your Family Health History

Large family smilingIf you are concerned about a disease running in your family, collect your family health history and talk to your doctor at your next visit. A doctor can evaluate all of the factors, including family health history, that may affect your risk of diseases and can recommend ways to reduce that risk.

Knowing Your Family Health History Can Benefit You At Any Age

The holiday season offers many opportunities for your family to share a meal—and your family health history. You and your family members share genes, and you may also have similar behaviors, cultures, and environments, each of which may affect your risk of developing health problems. Family health history takes all of these factors into account. Everyone in your family can benefit from knowing your family's health history and sharing this information with his or her doctor.

  • Before and During Pregnancy: If you have a family health history of a birth defect or genetic disorder, like sickle cell disease, you might have a higher risk of having a baby with this condition. Knowing your risk is important so that you can find and address potential health problems early. There may also be steps you can take to reduce your risk, such as taking folic acid to help prevent spina bifida. Remember to collect family health history from the baby's father, too.
  • Children. Many genetic disorders are first detected in childhood, and knowing about a history of a genetic condition in your family can help your child's doctor find and treat the condition early.
  • Young adults. A family health history of chronic diseases like diabetes or heart disease can mean that you should start screening tests earlier. For example, if you have a family health history of early onset heart disease, it is recommended that you start cholesterol screening at age 20.
  • Adults. Family health history can help your doctor decide what screening tests and other interventions you need and when. For example, if you have a grandmother, aunt, mother, or sister who had breast cancer before age 50, you may want to talk to your doctor about whether cancer genetic counseling might be right for you.
  • Older Adults. If you are one of the older members of your family, you may know more about diseases and health conditions in your family especially in relatives who are no longer living. Be sure to share this information with your younger relatives so that you may all benefit fromknowing this family health history information.

No matter what their ages are, everyone in your family can benefit from a healthy lifestyle, such as eating healthy, being physically active, and not smoking.
Are you ready to collect your family health history but don't know where to start? Here's how!

How to Collect Your Family Health History

The Surgeon General's My Family Health Portrait is a free web-based tool that can help you and your family collect and organize family health history information. My Family Health Portrait allows you to share this information easily with your doctor.

  • The first step is to talk to your family. Write down the names of blood relatives you need to include in your history. The most important relatives to include in your family health history are your parents, brothers and sisters, and your children. Next, you may want to talk to grandparents, uncles and aunts, nieces and nephews, and half-brothers and half-sisters.
  • Ask questions. To find out about your risk for chronic diseases, ask your relatives about which of these diseases they have had and when they were diagnosed. Questions can 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?
    • How old were you when each of these diseases was diagnosed?
    • What is our family's ancestry – what country did we come from?
    • For relatives who have died, be sure to ask about cause and age of death.
  • Record the information. Write this information down, and be sure to update it from time to time. To organize the information in your family health history you could use a free web-based tool such as My Family Health Portrait.
  • Share family health history information with your doctor and other family members. Your family health history can give you an idea of your risk for chronic diseases like cancer, heart disease and diabetes, but it is not the only factor to consider. If you are concerned about diseases that are common in your family, talk to your doctor at your next visit. A doctor can evaluate all of the factors, including family health history, that may affect your risk of some diseases, and can recommend ways to reduce that risk.

A new update to My Family Health Portrait now lets you know your risk  (increased, not increased) for diabetes and colon cancer based on your family health history and other risk factors. Even if you have a high risk family health history of diabetes, colon cancer, or another condition, that does not mean that you or your family members will definitely get that disease. It is important that you talk to your doctor about steps that you can take to lower your chances of getting the disease. You have already taken the first step by learning about your family health history!

  • Page last reviewed: November 17, 2014
  • Page last updated: November 17, 2014
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