Back to articles

Explore your family’s health history

News, Body

Your primary care provider needs to know a lot of things about you to help you stay healthy—including the latest medical problems of your older sister or your uncle on your mom’s side.

You might be wondering why their medical concerns are important to your provider. It turns out your family members’ health issues could impact your medical care.

Read on to learn about the benefits of uncovering your family health history and how to build a profile of your family medical tree.

Why family history matters

Physical traits like curly hair or brown eyes often run in families. But that’s not all. Sometimes an increased risk for diseases, like diabetes or heart trouble, can be handed down from parents and other relatives. That’s because families typically share genes, lifestyle habits and living environments.

So if a disease is more common in your family, you could be at risk for getting that disease too.

By knowing what types of health problems are prevalent in your family, your provider may encourage you to:

  • Get earlier or more frequent medical screening tests. For instance, if your mom and sister both had breast cancer, your provider may recommend that you get screened for the disease at a younger age.
  • Pay special attention to healthy habits, like good nutrition and regular exercise, which can help ward off diseases like diabetes.

Keep in mind that just because your relative had a disease doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get the disease too. But knowing a disease runs in your family might prompt you to be more proactive about your health.

4 steps for building a family health history

To start compiling a record of your family medical tree:

  1. Interview your relatives. Start with your closest relatives—your parents, siblings and any children you have. Move on to grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews, and cousins. Ask them about health conditions they’ve had. For example:
    “What chronic or other serious health problems have you had, such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure, stroke or high cholesterol?”
    “At what age were you diagnosed?”
    “Do you know what our relatives died of and how old they were at the time?” If they don’t know the answers, check out obituaries and death records.
    “What is our family’s ancestry? What countries did our relatives come from?”
    Family get-togethers are a good time to gather this information. Not seeing everyone anytime soon? Start calling or emailing. It’s another good reason to stay in touch.
  2. Write down what you learn. You can use an online family health history tool or an old-fashioned notebook.
  3. Share it. Give a copy of your family health history to your primary care provider and your relatives.
  4. Update it. Your family health history profile can change over time. So be sure to update it if you or any of your relatives develop a new health problem.

Check out this free online family health history tool

Start your own family health history profile today. The Surgeon General has a free tool that makes it simple to create and print a profile you can share with your family and your healthcare provider.