Creating a Family Health History

A family health history is a written record of a family’s health–think of it as a family health tree. Older adults are in a unique position to create such a document because they have the most knowledge about the health of previous generations. Creating a family health history can help you identify specific risks that may influence your health and the well-being of future generations. A health history is especially important for children. It can show their risk for a disease and help a pediatrician better diagnosis a disorder as early as possible.

Furthermore, a family health history can help a physician be proactive in your healthcare to better identify whether you are at higher risk for some diseases. A healthcare practitioner then can take actions (diagnostic testing), or recommend lifestyle changes (nutrition, stop smoking, exercise) to reduce your risk of developing an illness.

A few disorders are strongly influenced by our genes including Huntington’s disease, cystic fibrosis, and sickle cell anemia. These are single-gene disorders. However, other diseases which tend to run in families do not necessarily have as strong a genetic component. This includes breast, ovarian, and colon cancers, diabetes, and heart disease. For example, according to the National Breast Cancer Coalition, less than 10% of women who have breast cancer have a known gene mutation which increases their risk.

It is important to note that while you may be born with a predisposition to a certain disease, a combination of factors–genes combined with diet, environment, and lifestyle–may determine whether you will actually develop it.

Collecting Health Information

  • The best time to begin collecting family health data is at gatherings during a special event, the holidays, or a reunion. For relatives unable to attend due to geography or health, don’t be shy about calling them. Most people enjoy catching up with a family member and are willing to share any information or history they know.
  • Record the names of close relatives on each side of your family:  Parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews. Include medical conditions each relative has and at what age they were diagnosed. For deceased relatives, record the age at death and cause of death. Focus on diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, stroke, high cholesterol or blood pressure. Find out about any mental illness or intellectual disabilities. A three-generation family history is usually sufficient.
  • There are many online resources to help you collect family health information, including the link below to the US Surgeon General’s online tool, “My Family Health Portrait.”

 

https://familyhistory.hhs.gov/FHH/html/index.html

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