Compiling a Family Health History

You may know that you got your brown eyes from your mom or your dimples from your dad’s side of the family. But these obvious traits are not all you inherited. Disease risk can also be passed down through generations.

You can take steps to reduce your risk of many diseases. For example:

•People who learn they have a family history of heart disease can get regular exercise and eat a heart-healthy diet.
•Women who have breast cancer in their family can start having mammograms at an earlier age and consider other testing or treatment options.
The key is to find out what your risks are by compiling a family health history.

What goes into a family health history?
Try to gather information about at least three generations. Start with yourself and your children, if any. Add your parents, your siblings, and their children. Then go back to your grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. For each side of your family, include ethnic or racial origin. This can be an important factor in some diseases.

Facts about each person should include:

•Year of birth
•If deceased, age at death and cause of death
•Diseases and medical problems, and age at which each problem started
•Lifestyle factors that affect disease risk, such as smoking, exercise habits, and weight issues
List diseases or conditions that may be inherited, such as:

•Heart disease
•Mental illnesses
•High blood pressure
•High cholesterol
•Kidney disease
•Drug or alcohol problems
•Learning disabilities
•Birth defects
•Miscarriages or stillbirths
Where can I get this information?
The best way to learn about your family health history is by talking to family members. Older relatives are often good sources of information. Holidays, reunions, and family visits can be good times to ask questions.

Family records – such as baby books, family trees, and obituaries – may help fill in the blanks. You may also check public sources, such as birth and death certificates, and marriage licenses.

How do I create a family health history?
Here are some ways to make a family health history:

•Use an online tool called My Family Health Portrait, provided by the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office. It’s available in both English and Spanish. To access the tool, go to
•Draw it the same way you’d draw a family tree. Use branches showing the connections between various family members.
•Make it in list form, similar to a health history you’d fill out at your doctor’s office.
What should I do with my family health history?
Give a copy of your family health history to your doctor and ask him or her to go over it with you. It can help your doctor advise you about screening tests you may need and steps you could take to help prevent family diseases.

Store a copy of your family health history with your important papers. Review and update it every year or two. Be sure to give your doctor the latest version.

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