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Family Reunions and Family Health History

If you are concerned about a disease running in your family, talk to your doctor in your next visit. A doctor can evaluate all of the risk factors that may affect your risk of some diseases, including family history, and can recommend you a course of action to reduce that risk.

A family health history is a written or graphic record of health conditions present in your family. A useful family health history shows three generations of your biological relatives, and includes the name of the disease, age at diagnosis, or age and cause of death if relative is deceased.

First, write down your own information. Next, ask your relatives about their major health conditions, including chronic diseases.

  • Look for opportunities to talk with relatives you rarely see (such as family gatherings, holidays, etc.)
  • Talk directly with your relatives
  • Let them know that their health history may help other relatives to stay healthy, including future generations
  • Respect their privacy - don't insist if relatives want to keep information private
  • Ask knowledgeable relatives about conditions in deceased family members if necessary

To help you develop a record your family health history, use the U.S. Surgeon General's My Family Health Portrait tool.

Family members share genes, behaviors, lifestyles, and environments, which together may influence their risk for developing chronic diseases. Most people have a family health history of common chronic diseases (e.g., cancer, heart disease, or diabetes) and other health conditions (e.g., high blood pressure and hypercholesterolemia). A person with a close relative affected by a chronic disease may have a higher risk of developing that disease than a person who doesn't.

Americans know that family history is important to their health. One survey found that 96 percent of Americans believe that knowing their family history is important. Yet, the same survey found that only one-third of Americans have ever tried to gather and write down their family's health history. Are you ready to collect your family health history but don't know where to start?

Make a list of relatives.

Write down the names of blood relatives you need to include in your history.

  • The most important relatives to talk to for your family history are your parents, your brothers and sisters, and your children.
  • Next should be grandparents, uncles and aunts, nieces and nephews, and any half-brothers or half-sisters.
  • It is also helpful to talk to great uncles and great aunts, as well as cousins.

Prepare your questions.

Among the questions to ask are:

  • Do you have any chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, high blood pressure or diabetes?
  • Have you had any other serious illnesses, such as cancer or stroke?
  • How old were you when you developed these illnesses?

Photo: Family photosAlso ask questions about other relatives, both living and deceased, such as:

  • What is our family's ancestry - what country did we come from?
  • What illnesses did our late grandparents have?
  • How old were they when they died?
  • What caused their deaths?

To organize the information in your family history you could use a free Web-based tool such as My Family Health Portrait.

Family history can give you an idea of your risk for common diseases like cancer, heart disease and diabetes, but it is not the only risk factor. If you are concerned about a disease running in your family, talk to your doctor in your next visit. A doctor can evaluate all of the risk factors that may affect your risk of some diseases, including family history, and can recommend you a course of action to reduce that risk.

Related Information

For research about family history and chronic disease prevention, visit CDC's Web pages on the Family History Public Health Initiative and the Family Healthwareâ„¢ tool.

More Information

  • Page last reviewed: August 2, 2010
  • Page last updated: August 2, 2010
  • Content source:
    • Office of the Associate Director for Communication, Digital Media Branch, Division of Public Affairs
    • Page maintained by: Office of the Associate Director for Communication, Digital Media Branch, Division of Public Affairs
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